Research finds Government policies to raise GCSE results have had limited success
Government policies to raise GCSE exam results have had only limited success - but directing resources at schools with a high proportion of pupils from families on income support is paying dividends in terms of better GCSE exam results.
Three major education policies have attempted to improve exam results in England’s secondary schools during the past decade:
• Schools have been encouraged to compete for pupils through greater parental choice and by giving schools more control over their pupil-based funding
• Schools have been rewarded for acquiring specialist status (with the help of the government-backed Specialist Schools Trust)
• The Excellence-in-Cities programme has provided extra resources to help pupils living in deprived urban areas
The specialist schools and Excellence-in-Cities programmes have together cost over £3b over the past decade.
Research by economists at Lancaster University Management School, supported by the Nuffield Foundation, indicates that these policies have been only partially successful. The percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades increased from 35% to 58% between 1992 and 2006. The authors of the report estimate that the education reforms introduced during this period accounted for only one-third of the improvement in exam results.
The research is based on information obtained from the Department for Children, Schools and Families for all maintained secondary schools in England. The researchers attempt to measure the impact of education policies on the change in exam performance during 1992-2006. They compare the actual change in exam performance with the change that would have occurred in the absence of the policies.
Although there is evidence that the specialist schools programme raised exam performance in schools specialising in business studies, technology and the arts, there is very little evidence that the programme had any measurable effect on exam results in schools specialising in any of the other specialist areas, such as languages, sport and maths.
A further finding is that although the specialist schools programme has had very little impact on overall exam results, schools with a large percentage of pupils from poor families appear to have gained the most from the programme. Unfortunately, the programme has been directed mainly at schools with a high percentage of pupils from better-off families and there is no evidence that exam results in these schools have improved as a result of acquiring specialist status.
A more effective policy in raising exam performance, according to the researchers, has been the increased competition between schools. Statistical evidence indicates that GCSE exam results have been raised by over four percentage points as a result of the increased competition between schools. This represents nearly one-quarter of the improvement in exam results since the mid-1990s.
The policy of encouraging schools to compete for pupils is estimated to have been up to three times more effective in metropolitan areas, where school choice is much greater, compared to non-metropolitan areas. This supports the view that increased competition between schools has had positive effects on GCSE exam results.
The Excellence-in-Cities programme, introduced to improve exam results in inner city schools, has been moderately successful. We estimate that it has raised the proportion of pupils gaining good exam results by around 2 percentage points since 2000 for schools included in the programme.
Although education policies directed at the secondary education sector have not been notably successful in improving exam results for the sector as a whole, it is nevertheless encouraging that they have had a positive impact on schools with a high proportion of pupils from families on income support.
Since only one-third of the increase in exam performance from 35% to 58% of pupils obtaining five or more A*-C grades in the GCSE exams can be attributed to education policy, this raises an awkward question. What factors account for the unexplained two-thirds of the gain in exam results? The possible explanations include: grade inflation due to easier exams, an improvement in the quality of teaching, greater effort by pupils, or perhaps policy effects that have so far proved impossible to measure accurately.
• Three main policies have been used to improve GCSE exam results in England’s maintained secondary schools. First, schools have been encouraged to compete for pupils while parents have acquired greater school choice for their children. Second, financial incentives of over £1.5b have been provided to encourage schools to specialise in their strongest subjects. Third, schools in economically deprived urban areas have received over £1.5b in extra funding through the Excellence-in-Cities programme since 1999.
• The percentage of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades in the GCSE exams increased from 35% to 58% between 1992 and 2006. Only one-third of this remarkable improvement, however, is accounted for by the policies directed at the secondary education sector.
• The increased competition between schools since the early 1990s accounts for an increase in ‘good’ exam results of between four and five percentage points.
• Schools in metropolitan areas have benefited far more from the increased competition between schools than schools in non-metropolitan areas.
• The Excellence-in-Cities programme accounts for a two percentage point improvement in exam results since its introduction in 1999.
• Although the specialist schools programme has had very little impact on exam performance overall, there is strong evidence that the programme has significantly raised the exam performance of those specialist schools with a high proportion of pupils from families on income support.
• There is no evidence that the specialist schools programme has benefited schools with a high proportion of pupils from better-off families.
• Scarce educational resources appear to have been allocated inefficiently and inequitably by the specialist schools programme since the greatest share of funding has gone to those schools with pupils from better-off families. This is because these schools have found it much easier to acquire specialist status than schools with a high proportion of pupils from families on income support.