Access plans 'fail bottom 20%'

August 7, 1998

GOVERNMENT may struggle to widen participation in further and higher education for the fifth of all children failed by the schools system, the Liberal Democrats have said, Alan Thomson writes.

Education spokesman Don Foster said that GCSE target-setting and points-scoring does little for the lowest achieving 20 per cent of school pupils. Having failed GCSEs, they are unlikely to go on to A levels or higher level NVQs. This could damage the government's lifelong learning agenda.

Mr Foster based his claims on an analysis of education department figures by academic pressure group Article 26. It showed that the gap between the highest and lowest scores at GCSE grew between 1992 and 1997. The top fifth's average GCSE points score rose by 5.4 to 62.8, but the bottom fifth climbed just 2.1 points to an average 5.9.

"The government still has not realised that it has to get to grips with the bottom 20 per cent, for whom they have no specific targets set," Mr Foster said. "Rather than countering Tory failure, Labour is in danger of compounding it.

"The government talks about the learning age, but we are in danger of excluding a fifth of the population from further and higher education. These weakest pupils will continue to form part of an increasinglyI disadvantaged and growing underclass."

Mr Foster wants a system with targets for the lowest achievers that recognise attainment relative to their starting point. Schools and local education authorities should be encouraged to set such targets.

Without such goals, he said, "A teacher who has to get the points average up will concentrate on the middle-ranking pupils, not those at the bottom."

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