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There are no ’bog standard comprehensives’ when it comes to what GCSE’s students sit


There is no such thing as a ‘bog standard comprehensives’ when it comes to deciding which students are entered for GCSE examinations such as French, Geography or History, according to a new Economic and Social Research Council-funded study published today.

Researchers from Staffordshire University and the University of Durham found that there were big variations between and within schools in the extent to which students are entered for different GCSE subjects. Those differences had little to do with whether the school was a comprehensive or not. The factors that mattered most were the extent to which subject departments within a school competed with each other and the social background of a student’s schoolmates.

The study looked at the different patterns of GCSE entries at 664 schools in 1998, in a sample that involved more than 112,000 students. Seven subjects were examined: History, Geography, French, German, Spanish, Business Studies and Home Economics. “We found that there was a great variation between schools in each of the seven subjects that we investigated,” says Prof Peter Davies, co-director of Staffordshire University’s Institute for Education Policy Research, who led the research. “But, only a small proportion of that variation could be accounted for by the type of students attending the school, or whether or not the school is grammar, comprehensive or specialist. Factors within each individual school most affected which exams pupils took. So, the idea of a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ is a myth.”

The term ‘bog standard comprehensive’ was coined by the Prime Minister’s former spokesman, Alastair Campbell in 2001, while he was explaining government secondary school reforms. The researchers found big variations in the proportion of 15 year-old students entered for different subjects in GCSE exams – from 16% to 46% of 15 year olds in History and from 26% to 73% in French for example. Three important factors affected GCSE entries in 1998.

• The first, but least significant, was socio-economic status. Students from better off families were more likely to be entered for GCSE exams in History, French and German. Those from poorer families were more likely to be entered for Business Studies or Home Economics.

• The second was a student’s peer group. Entry for GCSE Geography was not dependent on an individual’s social background, but was higher where schools had a low proportion of pupils receiving free school meals. There were big differences between the proportions of boys and girls in mixed schools who were entered for different subjects, particularly Home Economics.

• The third related to the performance of different subject departments. Departments that actively discourage lower achieving students from enrolling or entering a GCSE exam are able to report higher rates of achievement. This happens most in French and German. But when Departments – such as History and Geography – are directly competing with each other (perhaps because of timetabling) a department attracts more students when it is seen as adding more value, by improving a student’s chance of getting a good grade.

“There has been a lot of emphasis on the proportion of students gaining five good GCSEs in recent years,” adds Prof Davies. “But there has been little research into which exams students are being entered for in different schools, and why. Different schools do things differently.

“While there were variations that related to the pupils’ background or the type of school they attended, these were not the most important factors. The performance of subject departments mattered much more. There was a big difference in the proportion of students entered between schools where departmental performance was measured by the number of top grades they achieved and those which were more concerned with the extent to which they stretched every student to achieve their full potential. “This has important implications for the decision to remove compulsory modern languages at Key Stage 4 from the National Curriculum, because language departments particularly seemed to emphasise absolute rather than value-added achievement.

“Within schools, the background of a student’s classmates also appeared to have a greater effect on which subjects a student was entered for than the student’s own social background. This suggests that it is particularly important to have a good social mix within a school if students are to be entered for a broad range of GCSE subjects.”

Becky Gammon | alfa
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