Changes to league tables to remove the focus on the C/D boundary and raw attainment have been cautiously welcomed by teachers and school leaders.
However, there is concern that related changes to floor standards will see a significant increase in the number of secondary schools considered to be failing.
From 2016, new-look league tables will measure pupils’ progress across their “best eight” subjects – English, maths, three EBacc options, and three non-EBacc GCSEs.
It means that the league tables will show whether pupils at a school typically achieve one grade more than expected or one grade less.
At the same time, the Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed that it will use the new so-called “best eight” progress measure as the basis for a new floor standard for secondary schools.
School minister David Laws has said that the new floor standard will be “progress half a grade lower than reasonable expectations”.
So, for example, if pupils at a school are expected to average a B in their eight subjects, the school will be below the floor if they average less than four Bs and four Cs.
There are 195 schools below the current floor standard of 40 per cent five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths. If applied now, the new floor standard would see this number double.
However, the DfE has said that because the new system will not begin until 2016 – for students currently in year 9 –it expects schools by then to have adjusted their curriculum so that the actual number falling below the floor will be lower.
In an unexpected move, the DfE has also confirmed that schools in which pupils average “a full grade above reasonable expectations” will not be inspected by Ofsted in the following year.
Alongside the “best eight” measure, the new league tables will also include:
The average grade a pupil achieves across the same “best eight” subjects.
The percentage of pupils who get a C grade or higher in English and mathematics.
The EBacc measure, which will continue to be listed as part of the rankings.
The DfE has said it is also considering a new “destination measure” which would show the percentage of pupils who move on to further study, employment or training.
Until now secondary schools have been judged by the proportion of pupils awarded five GCSEs at grade C or better, including English and maths.
Announcing the reforms in the House of Commons, Mr Laws, said: “Schools currently improve their league table position if pupils move over the C/D borderline. This gives schools a huge incentive to focus excessively on the small number of pupils around the five Cs borderline. This is unfair to pupils with the potential to move from E grades to D grades, or from B grades to A grades.
“It is also, paradoxically, unfair to those on the C/D borderline because it leads schools to teach to the test. We need secondary schools to give more attention to pupils who are falling behind.”
Speaking about using the new progress measure as part of floor standards, Mr Laws added: “This is much fairer because it takes account of a school’s intake. A pupil’s key stage 2 results will be used to set a reasonable expectation of what they should achieve at GCSE. Schools will get credit where pupils outperform these expectations.
“A child who gets an A when they are expected to get a B, or a D when they were expected to get an E, will score points for their school.
“This approach will ensure that all pupils matter, and will matter equally. This approach is fairer for schools as well as pupils.”
The DfE has confirmed that the final group of three non-EBacc qualifications can include “traditional academic subjects, subjects such as art, music and drama, and vocational subjects, such as engineering and business”.
It has also said that English and maths will be “double weighted” in the progress measure “to reflect the importance of these subjects”.
This week, headteachers welcomed the changes, but urged the DfE to monitor their implementation and impact carefully.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It is pleasing that these reforms are being implemented on a manageable timescale and following a meaningful consultation, which marks a welcome change and which will add to their success.
“We must always be keen to reward breadth across the curriculum. No-one can fully predict the impact of any measure and we will need to monitor the implementation, and its effects, carefully.
“Of course no measure is perfect; it can only be a snapshot, we must always dig beneath the data in order to understand how good a school really is. Not everything which matters can be measured.”
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “This is certainly an improvement on the existing five A* to C measure which caused an overemphasis on the C/D borderline. We have argued for a change to this kind of measure for many years and we appreciate the genuine consultation which has led to this decision. Nevertheless the quality of education provided by schools should be evaluated on breadth of what they do and not just examination results.”
However, Mr Lightman warned the DfE that the positive changes had been “seriously undermined by other ad hoc changes to the examination system”.
Elsewhere, the National Union of Teachers issued a warning over the changes to floor standards and the possible new destination measure. General secretary Christine Blower said: “The fact that the new accountability measures will put many more schools below the new floor targets will be devastating to many.
“Awarding schools for the number of pupils who go onto employment or further education will also cause great consternation for those in areas of high unemployment or whose pupils cannot afford to go onto further education.”
She added: “The decision to broaden attainment measures to include subjects outside the EBacc, including vocational qualifications, is a step in the right direction. We also welcome the move away from a ‘spotlight’ on pupils on the C/D borderline. It still remains the case however that a league table and target culture will persist. This is despite the DfE itself acknowledging it can lead to perverse incentives to simply meet targets and there is no guarantee this new system will not throw up a whole new set.”
You can read the DfE's full response to the accountability consultation by visiting www.gov.uk/government/consultations/secondary-school-accountability-consultation