The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP,
Secretary of State,
The Department for Education,
Great Smith Street,
London SW1P 3BT.
3rd October 2013
Dear Mr Gove,
I write to you, on behalf of the Manchester High School Headteachers’ Association, regarding the changes to the 2014
KS4 performance tables reported in Sunday’s media and confirmed on Monday afternoon by the Department for
We understand that you have made your policy change on the belief that the ‘damaging trend’ of increased early entry
into GCSE examinations is ‘harming the interests of many students.’ We acknowledge that inappropriate use of early
entry to examinations can result in some schools failing to deliver appropriate results for individual students. This is
unacceptable and strategic approaches to School Improvement that just ‘bank’ critical grades do not do students any
justice whatsoever. Unfortunately, however, we believe your recent changes will impact significantly on many schools
and their students where intelligent use of early entry secures the very best results for students and in many cases
encourages them to achieve far beyond their potential. This can only widen the inequalities that already exist within the
current system and this surely is the exact opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Manchester secondary schools serve a very diverse and complex urban community. The challenges that school leaders in
the city face are significant with many drawing students from areas of significant deprivation. What is common amongst
our city’s school leaders is the commitment they share in striving to secure the best possible outcomes for our students.
Many of the students our schools serve come from home backgrounds where traditional levels of support and
encouragement for children to engage successfully in their learning are not automatically provided by their families. The
staff in our schools not only provide the high quality educational input necessary for students to succeed but must also
structure and deliver the motivational and aspirational support that many other young people automatically receive
from home and take for granted. In our schools we have to work hard with some students to get them to engage with
learning effectively, to develop their individual self-confidence and to enable them to develop positive self-belief. We set
highly aspirational targets, we structure our learning and examination processes to provide motivational and
incentivised goals for our students and we strive to ensure that our students believe they can achieve the very best
educational outcomes and can secure the future learning opportunities required to fulfil their aspirations. Our city’s
schools employ a wide range of effective strategies to achieve a focused and purposeful approach to learning and
achievement, one of them being effective use of early entry into GCSE examinations.
In our schools many of our students come from backgrounds where academic success is not the norm; many do not
believe it is even attainable by them. We have, therefore, worked incredibly hard to develop the skills and resilience to
enable them to compete equitably with their peers. Many of our students are not completely successful at the first
attempt of an external exam, despite significant preparation and intervention by the school. Sometimes the hard edged
reality of ‘failure’ at an external examination is the first time they become truly motivated and understand that they do
have the ‘raw’ ability to succeed. The message they learn is that they will achieve success through hard work, consistent
effort, high quality teaching and with our support, care and guidance.
In our experience Manchester schools have been successfully using strategic early entry of examinations to motivate and
engage students for around five years: we have managed the process professionally with the best interests of students
at heart. At first many of us were concerned that some students might take ‘the easy option’ having secured a good
grade and lose interest in securing a higher grade in the future. We were pleasantly surprised when what we
experienced was the complete opposite. Our students continue to study their subjects until the end of Year 11 either
following a higher specification syllabus or a more advanced syllabus and are very passionate about achieving a higher
grade. This has only been secured by developing an intense passion for learning, making individuals feel proud of their
success and nurturing self-belief so that they are confident of their future academic abilities. Contrary to what the raw
national statistics may show, we have found that significant numbers of students have successfully improved on their
‘first attempt’ grade following our intervention and motivational strategies securing future grades on or above targets. In
many cases the students would have been unlikely to secure such grades without this intervention. We believe that
appropriate early entry to GCSE examinations is very much in the best interests of our students.
The policy that you have outlined provides a significant conflict for many schools, especially those in challenging
circumstances. You have stated that if schools are confident that early entry is in the best interest of students then
schools should not need to make any changes to entry plans. It is not that simple. We know our students will improve
their outcomes from ‘first entry’ to final entry. If schools can only count first entry the impact on our performance tables
could be significant and not reflective of our pupils’ true performance.
We are sure that you do not underestimate the power of performance indicators and the accountability system which
you are developing. Irrespective of our opinions of them they are used by the DfE, Ofsted, the media, the public and
particularly parents to make judgements about a school. Interpretation of these performance measures often needs
careful and skilful analysis of complex information to gain a true picture. If schools who are using ‘effective early entry
processes’ continue to do so then they will be effectively disadvantaged in the final performance tables under your
proposal. Irrespective of our moral beliefs or inclusive philosophies it is hard to understand how such changes will
impact on the public and professional perception of a school in anything other than a negative way. We have
experienced numerous Ofsted inspections and understand only too well the focus inspectors place on published,
‘validated’ data. We have experienced the myriad of ways that published data can be interpreted or mis-interpreted by
the media and we understand the importance that parents place on ‘published / official’ data when making important
decisions about the future of their child’s education.
We are sure that you do not fully appreciate the significant impact that your proposed policy could have on the large
number of schools who are working exceptionally hard to transform the provision they offer and ultimately transform
the educational outcomes and future opportunities for young people. Schools like ours are incredibly vulnerable to slight
changes in performance measures and varied interpretation of indicators which can unwittingly change the perception
of a school. The misinterpretation of a key statistic can have a drastic impact on a school that is striving to improve. We
believe that unless you reflect on some of the unintended consequences of your proposals you could significantly stall
the impressive progress being made in many schools across the country by highly dedicated teams of professional staff.
We are sure that you would not want this to be the case.
Over the past three years you have rightly championed the importance of the autonomy of, and accountability of,
individual schools within our education system. Many school leaders have actively embraced these principles,
irrespective of the designation of their school or academy. The vast majority of school leaders are absolutely committed
to securing the very best outcomes for the children they serve, as rightly challenged by you and your predecessors. Why
then do you feel it is now appropriate to implement a significant policy shift which completely contradicts the principles
of an autonomous system?
We have in place within this country an intelligent inspection system which holds school leaders and governors to
account more robustly than many of the leading education systems internationally. Ofsted have already been tasked
with challenging schools’ early entry policies and in many reports there are very clear statements either condemning a
schools approach or complimenting a school’s intelligent and sensitive use of early entry. Why do you need to jeopardise
the really positive work of a number of schools when appropriate safeguards are already in place?
We would ask that you consider revisiting your policy change and reflect on the negative impact that it will have on
many, many students and schools. There are other options that could achieve your intended goals without imposing
such a rigid straightjacket on the schools system, for instance:
1. Limiting entries to the best of the first two entries would provide our schools with an approach to early entry
which could be successfully used to address the needs of our students whilst not penalising the school
significantly. It would also prevent abuse of the early entry system.
2. More focus could be placed on the ‘Higher grades’ analysis for schools. We already have clear indicators
showing a school’s performance in a subject at A*/A and C+ grades. It would be very easy to insert an analysis of
B+ grades compared against national statistics, against which schools could be scrutinised and challenged by
governors, parents and inspectors.
3. Likewise, a more detailed focus on progress measures would allow schools to be challenged where they are
meeting headline benchmarks but students are not making expected or better progress.
The timing of this latest announcement, so close to the November examination series, has caused deeply significant
problems for many schools. Accomplished and highly committed members of staff have been incredibly perturbed and
dismayed at the implications of the changes. Many of our staff members have been working hard to prepare Year 11
students for appropriate entry routes which have already been disrupted by the changes to assessment processes that
have previously been announced. The implications of the recent changes are unfair on our hardworking staff and are
unfair on our equally hard working students.
We urge you to delay your current proposals for a year, to ensure that all current Year 11 students can continue their
planned programme of study and examination entry. I would then ask that you reflect on the impact of your proposals
on the whole school system and consider if a more appropriate approach could be taken, introduced after consultation
with schools and appropriate organisations alongside the previously planned changes to your accountability framework.
We know that you are passionately committed to ensuring that all of our children have the very best educational
opportunities and secure the very best educational outcomes. This passion and commitment is shared by the Principals
and Headteachers in Manchester and across the wider network of school leaders throughout the country. It would be
totally remiss of us if we did not raise our concerns with you directly, as we know you would not want to unwittingly
disadvantage any of the individual students in our care or impact negatively on our establishments when we are working
together for a common goal.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
Chorlton High School,
Chair of Manchester High School Headteachers’ Association
Abraham Moss High School Parrswood High School
Burnage Media Arts College Piper Hill Specialist Support School
Chorlton High School (Academy) St Matthew’s Roman Catholic High School
King David High School St Paul’s Roman Catholic High School
Levenshulme Girls School St Peter’s Roman Catholic High School
Loreto Roman Catholic High School, Chorlton The Barlow Roman Catholic High School
Manchester Creative and Media Academy The Cooperative Academy of Manchester
Manchester Enterprise Academy The East Manchester Academy
Manchester KS3 & KS4 Pupil Referral Unit The Manchester Federation of EBSD Schools
Manchester Hospital School Trinity Church of England High School (Academy)
Melland High School (Academy) Whalley Range 11-18 High School
Newall Green High School William Hulme’s Grammar School (Academy)
North Ridge High School Wright Robinson College
Our Lady’s Roman Catholic High School
Cc: Sir Michael Wilshaw – Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools
Stephen Twigg MP – Shadow Secretary of State for Education
Rt Hon David Laws MP- Department for Education, Minister of State