Friday 19 October 2007

The Telegraph and the 3Rs

When I first came to Britain in the early eighties, one thing you could say about the Daily Telegraph was that it was a newspaper. It had its trenchant opinions in the comment pages, but you could rely on the Telegraph, perhaps more than any other newspaper for an honest account of the news. Of course, most broadsheets have abandoned C.P Scott's dictum to a greater or lesser extent since then, but none more so than the Telegraph. Today's ludicrously one-sided account of the GCSE results shows that it no longer knows the difference between comment and fact. Statistics are presented like confetti, lacking in context or any sense that they know what they are talking about. You do not need a grade C in GCSE Maths and English to have 'mastered the 3Rs'; though it is certainly desirable if you plan to pursue A levels or further academic education; and the government has rightly set targets to increase the number of GCSE students who do so. However, the 90.7% of youngsters who achieve level 1 in functional maths and English are a better proxy for 'mastering the 3Rs' if the 3Rs are the basics. And if the GCSE English and Maths exams are as easy as the sneerers at the Telegraph imply, why do over a third of independent school students not reach this standard?

So, let's be clear about this. Achieving five good GCSEs - at grade C or above - in English and Maths is not something everyone will achieve (though over time a clear majority could). Indeed, many students get a C in English, but not in Maths, (go to second Excel file, table 8) or vice versa: 60% get a C in English, and 55% do so in Maths. With O levels, fewer than a quarter of all students got a C in these subjects. In 1997, just a third did so. Today it is nearly half. More to the point, as a far more intelligent piece in the Guardian shows, what matters most is whether and where improvements are taking place. And the evidence is that improvements are fastest in the poorest schools in the poorest areas, and in academies serving those communities.

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