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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 14:22 GMT
Focus on basics means good GCSEs
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

exam room
Alternative skills tests have now been ruled out
Secondary schools in England are being told that only good GCSEs in English and maths will meet the new league tables standard ministers have set.

The ruling ends confusion caused by official guidance that other skills qualifications might also be used.

In the implementation plan for their 14 to 19 reforms, ministers say only higher grade GCSEs will demonstrate the required mastery of "the basics".

Schools' achievements in these will be reported in the annual league tables.

That will happen from next year.

But schools have also been warned that their English and maths GCSEs will now be published alongside this year's results tables, due next month.

Ethnic minorities

This further change was signalled in a letter from Cathy Christieson, team leader for the achievement and attainment tables at the Department for Education and Skills.

black boys in classroom
% within ethnic groups getting 5+ A*-C including English and maths in 2004:
62.9% Chinese
54.1% Indian
41.5% Asian
40.9% White
32.1% Bangladeshi
30.8% Pakistani
26.4% Black
22.8% Black Caribbean

The move was made, she said, following the BBC's publication of schools' English and maths results for last year, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

New figures obtained by the BBC show that the focus on English and maths will have what officials call a "worrying" impact on education authorities with certain ethnic minority students.

In particular, there is concern over the performance of youngsters from black Caribbean backgrounds - with only 17% of boys getting five good grades including English and maths.


The focus on English and maths was announced by the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, in February.

As we know, league tables drive school policy, so it is vital to know what the policy is
John Dunford
Secondary Heads Association
This was in response to concerns raised by the government-commissioned report by Sir Mike Tomlinson on 14 to 19 schooling in England.

That said that even students who had English and maths GCSEs at grade C or above did not necessarily have "functional" literacy and numeracy skills.

The government intends introducing new qualifications to meet that gap.

Revised GCSEs in English, maths and information and communication technology will incorporate those new qualifications - but not until the end of the decade.

Ms Kelly told MPs: "We will also change the league tables to ensure that English and maths are a component of their five A to C grades."

The proportion of students getting the equivalent of five or more A* to C grades in GCSE-level qualifications is the standard benchmark of school performance, on which government targets are set.

What Ms Kelly did not spell out at the time was what the measure of English and maths attainment would be.

'Range of indicators'

That apparently emerged when the Department for Education and Skills published its proposals for the 2006 tables.

It gave two options for the percentages achieving five or more A* to C grades:

  • including English and maths GCSEs
  • including "functional English and maths at Level 2" - in which Key Skills and Basic Skills would count as well as GCSEs
Schools were going to be consulted on which would be used, following a pilot this year.

Those proposals have now been removed from the DfES website, but were still available on Wednesday on the Teachernet information site.

In her letter to head teachers, sent on 9 December, Ms Christieson still referred to "the two indicators".

She said these would now be published alongside the 2005 league tables, due next month.

She did not tell them the second one had been ruled out as meeting the new benchmark.

'Fog clearing'

Some education authorities said they found the situation confusing.

school computer room

Sir Mike Tomlinson himself told the BBC News website he thought there was confusion.

The general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said he would seek urgent clarification.

That has now finally been given, with the publication of the 14 to 19 implementation plan: only GCSEs will count, although - as now - the other three of the five good grades can be other qualifications.

Dr Dunford said: "The fog is clearing. This clarity will be essential for schools planning their approach to the new league tables.

"As we know, league tables drive school policy, so it is vital to know what the policy is."

The NASUWT teachers' union said it was concerned, because schools needed to collaborate to offer youngsters a better learning experience.

The focus on maths and English was "likely to entrench further a culture of competition", it said.

Basics worry for ethnic minorities
14 Dec 05 |  Education
Poor basic skills mar progress
14 Dec 05 |  Education
Call for clarity on school tables
09 Dec 05 |  Education
'Confusion' over new GCSE targets
05 Dec 05 |  Education
Focus on basics shakes up schools
20 Oct 05 |  Education
Teenagers 'must pass 3Rs tests'
23 Feb 05 |  Education
Basic skills 'employers' guarantee'
18 Oct 04 |  Education

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