Today's Observer contains the 'statistic' that a million GCSE pupils 'have been failed by Labour' since 1997. This is apparently the line being taken by the Tory Bow Group in a report out this week, which also claims that '90,000' pupils failed to get five Grade G GCSEs last year, the 'highest figure' since 1998.
This is of a piece with the self-selected statistics being used by the Tory front bench to maintain that despite a third more pupils gaining five decent GCSEs every year than when they left power - and despite the fact that the number of schools where fewer than 30% reach this standard falling from half to a fifth of secondaries - the system is somehow getting worse. As Table 1 in this release shows, the proportion of pupils achieving five A-G grades at GCSE or equivalent has risen every year since 1997.
The Tories only reach their conclusion by discounting the vocational qualifications - including functional English and Maths - that schools often use (and have increasingly done since 1997) to engage young people less likely to achieve academic qualifications. In fact, although the numbers of students taking the exams has risen from 575,000 in 1998 to 656,000 in 2007, the number failing to get five good grades has fallen from 72,000 to 65,600 over the same period. Moreover, the figure for 2007 falls to 53,880 when the results are included for students who do their exams a little later than others (at the end of Key Stage 4). At the time of the 1997 election, contrary to what the Observer said in its leader, Labour did set a target to cut the numbers of pupils leaving education with no passes: their numbers have fallen from 44,291 in 1997 to 7,140 in 2007.
With changes introduced in the last year - and which were never part of the tables when the Tories were in power - Labour is now looking at the figures including English and Maths GCSEs, and that is forcing schools to work at getting better results in both subjects. That is likely to see that figure increasing too in the future. But do the Tories really need to discount the hard work over the last decade of teachers and pupils to explain how they would supposedly do better?