Should schools be fined if students don’t get their GCSEs?

By Jonathan Clifton

| 25 August 2015

Today’s report from Policy Exchange was bound to catch the headlines – recommending that schools are “fined” for failing to get students a grade C in English and Maths. In fact, the recommendations in the report are far more nuanced than this headline suggests – essentially recommending that schools have to compensate further education colleges for the extra costs of teaching 16- to 18-year-olds who arrive without a grade C in these core subjects, with various safeguards in place to ensure that schools are not penalised for taking low-attaining students in the first place.    

The report shines a welcome spotlight on a problem that is very familiar to those working in further education. Colleges who take on low-attaining students at age 16 are required to help them resit their English and maths GCSEs, in the hope of getting them up to a grade C. But they are poorly compensated for this (just £480 per pupil) and suffer a crippling shortage of specialist teachers in these subjects.   
Even with some sensible caveats and safeguards in place, Policy Exchange’s recommendations could open a Pandora’s box of perverse incentives in a school system that is already full of them. Schools already face an array of tough incentives to get their students up to a grade C in English and maths – and the authors need to demonstrate why adding another one into the mix is likely to work where previous ones have failed.

What’s more, taking cash away from schools that are struggling to achieve good results is not usually a recipe for driving improvement – and risks sending them into a situation where less money and low results makes it harder to recruit the best teachers and leaders – undermining the very thing that is essential for driving up standards. As a number of commentators on the left and right have pointed out, efforts to improve our education system should focus more on building capacity in the system rather than inserting ever-tougher targets and sanctions and hoping that will be sufficient to do the job.

More generally, this report reads like a small and tricky technical fix to a gaping hole in the education system. The major problem identified by the report is that 16 to 18 education in England is funded at a much lower rate than education for 11- to 16-year-olds – a differential which is being exacerbated as post-16 education faces further cuts while schools have their budgets protected. England is unusual in this regard, with most developed countries increasing spending on this age group. There is therefore a strong logic in Policy Exchange’s argument for a transfer of resources from schools to colleges to compensate them for “catch-up tuition” – but it makes no sense to only take these extra resources from those schools which are already performing badly and struggling to get good results.     

A more meaningful way of achieving this shift in resources would be to include 16 to 18 education funding within the “ringfenced” schools budget – allowing spending trade-offs between the different phases to be made more transparently. This could, for example, free up resources for an adequately funded “catch-up premium” to compensate colleges who take on students with lower grades – the current weighting of £480 to help teach these pupils should be much higher. (In fact, forthcoming modelling from IPPR shows that it would be possible to protect the whole DfE budget in cash terms while retaining the Chancellor’s commitment to a surplus budget – but that is a different argument about the size of the overall envelope available for schools and colleges).  

This report should be welcomed for raising the issue of post-16 education. Increasing the number of 16- to 18-year-olds who achieve a grade C at English and maths is an important ambition for the education and skills system, and one that has not received enough attention despite the best efforts of those working in the sector. But we’ll need more ambitious reforms to address the problem.

Jonathan Clifton is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR. Follow him: @jp_clifton

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