Exam reforms 'hit school targets'
Current Government targets for secondary schools are "pretty much irrelevant" this year in the wake of major upheaval in the GCSE exam system, according to headteachers.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has warned against judging the nation's schools on one set of exam results, saying too much has changed compared to 2013 to draw accurate comparisons from year to year.
The warning comes just days before new performance data showing how every secondary in England is doing at GCSE and A-level is due to be published.
Under the current system, schools are considered to be failing if fewer than 40% of their students score at least five Cs at GCSE, including English and maths, and they do not meet national averages in pupil progress.
Around 150 schools are expected to fall below the threshold, and the numbers could be up compared to last year, it is suggested.
ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said: "It is not possible to use this year's performance tables to make accurate comparisons with previous years. Too much has changed in the way the tables are calculated. Both the Department for Education and Ofsted have confirmed this.
"No lines can be drawn between data in 2013 and 2014. This year only the first GCSE grade rather than the best grade counted, the English speaking and listening grade was removed, there were changes to the way vocational qualifications were counted, and some English GCSEs were not included. It is comparing apples and pears. In light of this the current floor targets are pretty much irrelevant."
GCSE results published last summer, which are used in this week's statistics, showed that across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the proportion of exams awarded a C or higher had risen for the first time in three years.
But there was a sharp drop in English grades, with 61.7% of entries scoring A*-C, down 1.9 percentage points from last summer. This is believed to be the biggest drop in the qualification's history.
Maths saw an opposite result, with 62.4% of entries gaining an A*-C grade, up a massive 4.8 percentage points on 2013.
These are key subjects in the Government's floor target, and a lower than expected English result could push a school below the benchmark.
At the time, exam chiefs suggested that the changes in results were down to recent education reforms. These included removing speaking and listening from final English grades - a decision that, in England, meant only a teenager's first attempt at an exam would count in school league tables, a move which has hit early and multiple entries. There was also less coursework, and a switch by some students to take International GCSEs (IGCSE) in some subjects.
Mr Lightman urged any organisation looking at this week's data not to judge schools on these figures alone.
"Schools have experienced a lot of volatility in results and quite a few will have fallen below that target level and that puts them under pressure," he said.
"It's very important that anybody looking at the performance tables understands the limitations that they have when making judgments about schools. They need to look at the full picture of how a school is performing."
Mr Lightman added that it was his suspicion that there may be more secondaries falling below the Government's floor target this year.
Last year's performance tables, based on 2013 GCSE results, showed that 154 schools, collectively educating 117,000 youngsters, were not reaching the Government's 40% GCSE benchmark.
The number of schools falling below the threshold has been falling, and has more than halved since 2010, according to last year's data.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We have made important changes to a system that rewarded the wrong outcomes. We have stripped out qualifications that were of little value and are making sure pupils take exams when they are ready, not before.
"This may result in some variation across all types of schools, ensuring they are held to account for the right outcomes - but it will not have an impact on individual students' results."