Education, the ETI Chief Inspector’s Report & our Non-Grammar schools

The criticisms contained in the ETI Chief Inspector’s Report earlier in the week, on the back of the recent revelation that the Programme for Government (PfG) targets regarding educational achievements by poorer pupils are not being met, should not come as any surprise.

With regard to the Programme for Government, the noble yet wildly unrealistic target of just under 50% of free school meal (FSM) entitled pupils achieving 5 ‘good’ GCSEs was included in the PfG. As things stand, just 34% of FSM entitled pupils reach this goal.

The Chief Inspector’s Report was also critical of school leaderships in the post-primary sector.

Yet the inevitable failure to reach the PfG target masks the considerable success achieved over the past decade in dramatically improving the levels of achievement reached by pupils in the schools which are tasked with doing the heaviest of lifting in our education system: the non-grammar secondary schools ie those schools for which the overwhelming majority of FSM-entitled pupils attend.

Emma Lazarus famously coined the phrase “give me your tired, your poor” as part of the New Colossus poem now inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In many ways, it is an invite aptly describing the plight of many of our non-grammar schools as they open their doors to those denied entry to the promised land of grammar school education.

I’m not attempting to paint a bleak, unattractive picture of non-grammar schools with that comment. Indeed I have long contended that the teaching professionals working within these schools are the true heroes of our education system, dedicating their professional lives to working with those who didn’t get to make the ‘choice’ to attend the grammar school. The school leaders, staff and communities serving this sector face considerably more obstacles with regard to maximizing academic achievement than any other sector of our education system.

The stark truth remains that the non-grammar sector will contain virtually all of the pupils deemed to be performing below average in Maths and English at the end of their primary schooling, as well as the great majority of working class children and much greater number of children with emotional, behavioural & other needs, all corralled into the same classrooms in the same school.

That so many non-grammar schools have earned tremendous reputations for academic achievement is a mark of the quality of provision and the calibre of school leaders in these schools.

In 2005/06, just 43% of pupils in non-grammar schools obtained 5+ GCSEs or equivalent. 50 non-grammar schools returned statistics showing that less than 2 in 5 pupils were reaching the threshold of 5+ GCSEs, with 13 schools returning less than a quarter of pupils hitting that mark. The following year, 13 schools returned statistics confirming that 10% or more of their pupils failed to obtain a single GCSE or equivalent.

The intervening years have witnessed considerable improvements across all of the non-grammar sectors.

The story of our largest post-primary school, St Louise’s Comprehensive on the Falls Road, is a perfect case in point.

In 2005/06, 39% of pupils obtained 5+ GCSEs or equivalent, 4% less than the average for the sector. Yet by 2012/13, St Louise’s had topped the poll of all non-grammars, with a remarkable 99% of girls reaching the mark.

A number of other schools registering a much lower number and percentage of pupils obtaining 5 GCSEs or equivalents just 8/9 years ago are now returning results indicating that upwards on three quarters of pupils are hitting and exceeding the mark today.

Here’s what Noelle Buick, ETI Chief Inspector, had to say on the matter in her report:

“The improvement in the percentage of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs in non-grammar schools reflects favourably on the hard work and perseverance of such schools in driving up standards and securing good outcomes for their pupils.”

So what has changed?

A number of factors have clearly played a part in the rising tide of results in our non-grammar schools.

Robust ETI inspections and follow-up actions guided by Education Board officers, school leaders and sectoral body representatives in anticipation of return inspections have sharpened practice and elevated the bar of expectation, consistent with the intentions of the Every School A Good School (ESAGS) policy document. Whisper it, but the culture of public accountability heralded by the publication of albeit crude league tables annually has led to a change in expectation and increased pressures within schools to think and act strategically in order to close the gap on other schools. Combined, these developments have ensured that schools have raised their game in order to address the perception and reality of underachievement.

Central to the success has been a willingness to match learners with qualifications they were capable of securing A-C grades in, and hence the rise of the equivalent assessments, which can in many non-grammar schools exceed the actual number of GCSEs sat by pupils.

Whilst critics have suggested that equivalent assessments represent a diminution in the quality of subjects and examinations, in reality they provide an invaluable means of matching learners with assessments to ensure that as many pupils as possible either leave formal schooling after GCSEs/equivalents or continue their studies with a profile of assessments passed at A-C grade level to equip them with qualifications to enter the world of work or further/higher education.

In Britain and here, there has been disquiet with the reliance on equivalents to help pupils obtain the minimum threshold of 5 GCSEs/equivalents, and hence the move to focus on the numbers and percentage of pupils at school level achieving 5 ‘good’ GCSEs/ equivalents, with ‘good’ meaning inclusive of both GCSE Maths and GCSE English.

On that basis, the results profile remains soberingly static across the years. Once the proviso of Maths and English is included into the golden 5 grades, the percentage of pupils in the non-grammar sector decreases from the 67% figure to 38%- an improvement of some 5% on the 33% reached in 2008/09, but still markedly below the figures for 5 passes from any subjects returned in the same school sector.

The corresponding figures for grammar schools have remained notably consistent throughout the past 5/6 years: 96-97% annually obtain 5+ A-C GCSE/ equivalent grades of any type, and 94% throughout the period securing the Maths and English GCSEs amongst the 5 pass grades.

With this in mind, Noelle Buick issued a stinging criticism of the non-grammar sector regarding levels of achievement in Maths and English at GCSE level in her report:

“It is not acceptable that over 60% of pupils in non-grammar schools are still not achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C including GCSE English and Mathematics.”

Personally, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

A school system which uses competences in Numeracy and Literacy at age eleven to determine which school sector children enter will always be defined by massive differentials in levels of achievement in those very subjects by the same pupils five years down the line.

The Delivering Social Change Signature Project initiative by OFMDFM has now entered its second academic year of operation, and it will be interesting to see what- if any- difference was made in a qualitative sense regarding the numbers and percentage of pupils obtaining Maths and English GCSE A-C grades.

In one sense, I find the focus on pupils securing both GCSE grades a bit harsh.

The norm-referenced aspect of GCSE Maths and English grading means that there will always be a substantial cohort of children who fail to reach the grade- after all, it is a bit like those targets that seek everyone to score above the average…….(think about it.)

Furthermore, a closer inspection of the performance of boys and girls who fail to obtain 5 ‘good’ GCSEs would confirm that there is a clear gender bias for girls towards English and boys towards Maths.

The 2012/13 statistics (most recent available) for boys and girls who obtained 5+ GCSEs including Maths and English in Non-Grammar schools, and for those who secured 5+ GCSEs but with only one of the two core subjects, provide evidence of this trend:

2012/13 Non-Grammar School GCSE Performance

5+ GCSEs inc Maths/English 5+ GCSEsMaths only 5+ GCSEsEnglish only
Boys 33.7% 9.6% 4.5%
Girls 45.2% 3.5% 12.8%


The statistics clearly indicate that a programme targeting girls for Maths and boys for English in non-Grammar schools could be one way of securing a more significant advance in terms of the overall numbers of pupils achieving the 5+ ‘good’ GCSEs. The existing Delivering Social Change initiative could be a means of sharpening the focus in the schools it operates within with this objective in mind, not least since the remit of those delivering the DSC programme is to target the cohort of pupils deemed most likely to get across the line as a consequence of the additional support.

In any case, I’ll end with the challenge from Noelle Buick for all involved in education to work together to “raise aspirations, expectations and enable all learners to achieve well.”

A fitting mission statement.


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