League tables show Gove’s lack of ambition on underperforming schools

A closer look at the school league tables reveals the govt. is being insufficiently ambitious about turning round under-performing schools, writes Rick Muir.

Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

Much of the discussion of the publication this week of the school league tables has focused on the introduction of the new English Baccalaureate which has been retrospectively applied to this year’s GCSE results and which ippr has criticised elsewhere.

However, a closer look at the league tables reveals the government is being insufficiently ambitious about turning round under-performing schools. The last Labour government set a target that every school should have more than 30 per cent of its pupils gaining 5 A*-C GCSEs in English and Maths.

Labour was successful at meeting this target with the number of schools below the floor falling from 912 in 2004/05 to just 82 in 2009/10, according to the figures; see Table 1 below:

Number of schools reaching the previous (30%) minimum standard 2004/05–2009/10:


Number of schools where fewer than
30% of pupils achieved 5+ A*–C GCSEs including English and maths

Reduction in schools where fewer than 30% of pupils achieved 5+ A*–C GCSEs including English and maths



2005/6 783 129
2006/7 631 152
2007/8 440 191
2008/9 247 193
2009/10 82 165

Michael Gove was right to retain Labour’s approach of a floor target for schools at the bottom end of the league tables and he was also right to raise the target – although he didn’t go far enough. The government’s new target is that at least 35% of pupils in every school should get five A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths; although no date has been set for when that level should be met.

Today’s league tables show that just 216 schools failed to reach the new target this year. Given that in its last year in office alone Labour managed to get 165 schools over their floor, this target looks under-ambitious.

We should ensure that schools are continuously improving – not least if we are to raise England’s schools up to the standards of the best in the world.  Each parliament should set itself a higher standard in terms of school improvement. Given that around 700 schools were lifted above the floor in the last parliament, this government should set itself a similarly ambitious target.

Our aim should be that by the end of this parliament at least 40% of pupils in every school should get 5 good GCSEs, including English and Maths. At present around 500 schools fall below this level. This should sit alongside a new Pupil Premium Entitlement for all low income pupils, wherever they learn, which ensures that extra resources reach the children for whom they are intended.

So far improvement towards the floor target has come about through a mixture of dedicated schools advisors to support school leadership and targeted extra support for teaching and learning. Schools that did not succeed were re-launched as academies.

As school standards rise, a different appraoch may be required:

• One that focuses on ensuring the best teachers are recruited and retained in the most challenging schools;

• In which more schools come under the leadership of federations and chains of high performing schools;

• And where innovation is spread more widely through peer-to-peer networks.

The biggest problem in England’s school system remains the class divide: the fact that pupils from poorer backgrounds continue to lag behind their wealthier peers. If we are to seriously tackle the attainment gap, the government needs to raise its game.

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13 Responses to “League tables show Gove’s lack of ambition on underperforming schools”

  1. Emma Donaldson

    RT @leftfootfwd: League tables show Gove's lack of ambition on underperforming schools: http://bit.ly/i5gGzD writes @RickMuir1

  2. Judith Haire

    RT @leftfootfwd: League tables show Gove's lack of ambition on underperforming schools: http://bit.ly/i5gGzD writes @RickMuir1

  3. Rick Muir

    RT @leftfootfwd: League tables show Gove's lack of ambition on underperforming schools: http://bit.ly/i5gGzD writes @RickMuir1

  4. Mr. Sensible

    Rick, I must admit to being unsure on the previous government’s accademies programme; I think it should have promoted federations within local authority structures more.

    But at least the previous government’s programme focused on improving underperforming schools; what impact do you think this program will have, given that schools rated outstanding by Ofsted are being fasttracked through the process?

    On the question of the English Baccalaureate, my problem with what the government is doing is twofold; first, of the 5 subjects Gove is talking about for it, humanities subjects are I believe optional in most places, and languages are also optional in several places.Second, and related, why is the government frontloading this policy so it is being used for this year’s league tables? As a result, students and schools are being judged on exams which were mostly taken before the Coalition was born. I agree with you that we need to have league tables, but would it not have been a better idea to put something like this back until 2013 or 2014, to allow current Year 9 students to take it in to account when choosing their options?

    What do you think?

  5. GiftedPhoenix

    IPPR says floor target should be 40% 5 A*-C GCSEs – http://bit.ly/dIvaud – but is there capacity in the system alongside all other reforms?

  6. James Purnell

    Rick Muir on why govt not ambitious enough on struggling schools. http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/01/michael-gove-school-league-tables/

  7. Éoin Clarke

    There is so much wrong with this approach to publishing league tables, that one does not know where to begin…

    At its most basic, the government if they must publish tme, should publish them in the summer, when the children are off school and thus escape most of the hype, disappointment etc around them…

    The government could also set up an intranet system for parents and authorities to log in an access the data if they wish, wuite why it needs to be published in ful full fan fare when children are fretting about Janaury exams, May exams or indeed their future career prospects is beyond me….

    Headmasters should be prvented from using the tables as a stick to morally beat their pupils with.. it is not the students fault if the ranking is not as the headmaster or board of governors would wish..

    That for me is the biggest danger, that class intake “Y” have a miserable year because the year previous year “V” underperformed..

  8. Mr. Sensible

    Éoin I don’t necesarily agree with you.

    I am less than impressed with the media coverage of whenever our students succeed, but we do need to have public accountability.

  9. Darren Tracey

    As a supporter of our cause of a good, fair and equal society, I find this article rather ignorant. I teach in a Secondary Modern school in the south east of England (Not a Comprehensive). By the new descriptors set out by Mr Gove, we will be classed as a failing school, even though the previous progress of our students would place us in the top 2% of similar schools in the country. The education offered by the dedicated staff of our school attempts to engage young people from areas of high deprivation.

    My problem with Mr Ball’s and now Mr Gove’s approach is this: The top 25% (Using the academic descriptors of our system) of the year 7 students every year go straight to the local Grammar schools, leaving the remaining 75% to be spread between the other schools in the area. If we take 35% as the national bench mark, if evenly distributed, the non grammar schools would expect to see 13% of their students reach this level. However this is not the case and schools like ours are still expected to make the 35% grade and placed in a league table alongside the grammar schools. You would expect the grammar schools to achieve 100%, however they do not and are still regarded as successful. Our students work hard and to be told that they are failing is a disgrace. The Staff work hard and get higher than expected grades and to be told that they are failing is an insult.

    Our school last year made the 30% grade, significantly higher than the grades the students would be predicated to make, based on their end of primary school tests. Because of a fall in the local population the local grammar schools are set to take a percentage closer to 30% of the demographic, making our chance of achieving 35% (and rising) impossible. I appreciate I am actually subscribing to determinism here by talking about ‘predictions’ but that is unfortunately the basis of the Grammar school system in which our school exists.

    These bench mark figures are one dimensional and show more about young people getting exams than they do about young people receiving an education. I would dearly love for 100% of students to get all A*s, but then what would that mean? If Left Foot Forward thinks that this system is fair and equal, then you clearly subscribe to Cyril Burt and probably also agree that those with more money or supportive parents deserve a better education than those without.

    To say that I’m disappointed with this site would be an understatement.

  10. Daniel Pitt

    RT @leftfootfwd: League tables show Gove's lack of ambition on underperforming schools: http://bit.ly/i5gGzD writes @RickMuir1

  11. Susan Steward

    The problem we have in this country is that we have never agreed what education is actually for. Michael Gove is secretary for state for education in England only – Scotland has always had a different system where pupils carry on studying a number of subjects to age 18 rather than just age 14. The Nuffield Review of 14-18 education (Richard Pring 2009?) asks “what does an educated 18 year old look like?” It suggests a more holistic curriculum that would mirror those in other countries (even Wales now has its own Bac). The current list of 5 subjects that Gove is using does not include any arts, ‘creative’ or D&T subject and therefore is deeply flawed.

    Having said this I cautiously welcome the debate that the new league tables are provoking. I visit a number of schools and many are playing the system. I find it difficult to defend policies where 14 year olds are spending their time in work environments one or two days a week (for no pay) rather than in school studying – sweeping hair from floors and painting nails does not seem like an education to me. Similarly while there appears to be a myriad of ‘choice’ choosing vocational subjects often means not being able to choose a humanities subject or a MFL because the school itself has already decided that that student is incapable of getting a C at GCSE (even if they could get a D or an E). Students are taken out of non-compulsory subjects to do extra English and Maths because the message is that these are the only ones that ‘count’. Having 5 subjects that now count make that targeting much more difficult though I expect schools again will again start to find ways of getting round this new system too. It is the league tables that require schools to play the system rather than look at what is actually best for young people. We need a much better system of ensuring school accountability: surely we want schools to turn out ‘good’ citizens too who can work together and for others rather than just themselves?

    Perhaps more worrying than Gove’s new league tables (who cares that much?) is a trend amongst universities to change admissions criteria with little prior publicity. The THES recently reported the demise of MFLs in comprehensive schools (around 44%) and in one article it came to light that UCL (a member of the Russell Group) will require all its undergrads to have ‘another language’ from 2012. Given that students choose options when they are aged 14 and don’t go to uni until they are 18 this does strike me as a real problem for many as the goal posts have been moved with no warning (and still not publicised).

    I have worked on education projects looking at the issues ‘schools in challenging circumstances’ face. Yes they really do need to recruit the best teachers but who are these? Gove is rubbishing the current teacher training system and promoting Teach First but a recent OFSTED report said that the best training takes place when universities and schools work in partnership. There is expertise in both sectors as to how to improve such schools but just repeating what is currently done is insufficient and clearly counter-productive. The current model of teacher training allows trainees the time to observe and to discuss what they observe with others when they return to the university classroom: reflection is a really important component in effective teacher training. Teach First apprentices (for that is what they are) do not have this – they are thrown in at the deep end in our most challenging schools with little or no training and more importantly they have little time to think or reflect on what they are doing whilst ‘on the job’. Pupils in challenging circumstances deserve the best trained teachers which means understanding learning and teaching too not just differential equations (not much call for these amongst bottom set Year 9); they also need teachers who are committed to working in such environments not ones who are enticed in with a promise of another job in ‘management’ after a few years. We currently lose at least 40% (some estimates say 50%) of all teachers in their first 5 years – we have to start looking at why and how to stop this.Teachers need to be valued for their teaching expertise – good subject knowledge is only the start.

    This whole issue is about so much more than what is being portrayed in the media and it is young people who are being short-changed by all sides. It goes without saying that we have to get rid of selective schools in all authorities and stop pretending that the private schools are ‘charities’ so they don’t have to pay tax. But we desperately need to raise the level of the debate and use what we know from the research evidence that is out there. Sadly this has always either been rubbished or ignored by both political parties.

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