The success of a secondary school is measured in a single statistic: the percentage of children attaining 5 or more GCSEs at grade C or above.
Far from raising standards, this has actually encouraged mediocrity. In maths classrooms, schools are happy for bright children to settle for a C because it makes little difference to their figures whether they get an A, B or C. Some schools encourage students to sit their GCSE maths in Year 10: this is not necessarily for the benefit of the student, who gets a C in Year 10 when they could have got an A or B with another year’s study, but gets a C in the bag and allows them to concentrate on other subjects.
This gives schools more time and energy to focus on the borderline C/D students (and also potential A-level candidates.) I won’t be liked for saying this, but the story will be familiar to those teaching maths across the country: these students are often in smaller class sizes, get the best teachers, offered after-school classes, Easter revision courses, even one-to-one tuition and mentoring.
To a lesser extent this is true in primary schools, where league tables focus on the number of children achieving a Level 4 or higher at the end of Key Stage 2.
As maths tutors trying to get the best out of individuals, it can be infuriating. I recall one student whose maths teacher was adamant he should do foundation GCSE (this meant that he had a better chance of achieving a C, although at foundation you cannot exceed this.) Finally, after extensive pressure from the parent, the teacher agreed to enter him at higher level; he went on to achieve a grade A. If we find it infuriating, how do parents find it?
This is not the fault of teachers, but endemic within the system. I was a maths teacher for 10 years and understand the pressure and scrutiny that staff are under, and also the severe shortage of maths teachers we are facing nationally. From yesterday’s press, it seems that David Cameron is starting to recognise this. Is far as I can see, there are two options: scrap league tables, or ensure that league tables recognise the performance of every individual and not just those on the C/D borderline.
In the meantime, parents need to be aware that if their child is not on the C/D borderline, or a potential A-level candidate, then they may well be coasting towards an easy C or being allowed to settle for a minimum pass of an E, F or G.