Secondary schools across Dorset have been rocked by new Government figures that reveal low levels of pupil achievement in core subjects.
The figures rate pupils for the first time on their attainment in five key GCSE subjects that make up the new so-called English baccalaureate (Ebac), in contrast to previous league tables that have focused on pupils achieving five A* to C grades in any GCSE subjects.
The new baccalaureate announced by education secretary Michael Gove would not replace GCSEs but would award pupils who achieve A* to C grades in English, mathematics, science, a language and either geography or history.
Schools in Dorset that had performed well under the previous measure have seen their scores plummet alarmingly when measured according to the new criteria.
Figures revealed yesterday showed 61 per cent of pupils at Blandford School attained five A* to C grades in any GCSE subjects, but just nine per cent of pupils achieved those grades in the core subjects of the baccalaureate. Shaftesbury School saw its score slashed from 66 per cent to just six per cent, Sir John Colfox School in Bridport fell from 82 per cent to 19 per cent, the Beaminster School dropped from 76 per cent to 26 per cent and the figures from The Gryphon School in Sherborne slumped from 80 per cent to 29 per cent.
Ninety per cent of pupils at the high-achieving Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester managed to pass five GCSEs at the higher end grades, but only 46 per cent would meet the standard for the Ebac.
Head teacher of Sir John Colfox School, Kay Taylor, said her main concern was the effect the change could have in restricting student choice.
She said: "This is a nonsense and we feel it is unfair. When our students came to choose their options two years ago, we did not know anything about this. I'm not so much concerned about the effect this will have on our standing in the league tables, but I'm very worried about how this will reduce the choice for young people.
"We need to start thinking now about whether, four or five years down the line, having the English baccalaureate will make the difference between an applicant getting a place in university or not. That would change everything. When the students come to think of their options this year they will be more inclined to choose history or geography over courses like business studies or product design – subjects which would prepare them well for modern careers.
"I'm worried we will see subjects like business studies disappear from the curriculum, which would be a great loss. As a history teacher, and advocate for the subject, even I can see that not everyone likes history or geography. How do you turn to a pupil who has got excellent GCSEs in RE and art and tell them they are less well educated than another who has geography and history?"
Independent schools also saw their statistics tumble – 85 per cent of Sherborne School pupils achieved five A* to C grades but not a single pupil would have reached the Government's new standard. A similar situation is observed at Milton Abbey School, Blandford, where the statistics went from 87 per cent to zero. The Clayesmore School in Blandford dropped from 92 per cent to 21 per cent.
However, it appears the data from independent schools may be misleading as many of them offer alternative qualifications such as an international GCSE in mathematics that is not recognised by the Department for Education.
Simon Henderson, deputy head of academic at Sherborne School, said: "Here the boys do the International GCSE in English, maths and science, which the Department for Education did not recognise this year. If they had, then 104 out of 117 boys achieved the required grades. This will affect quite a few of the schools in the Headmaster's Conference (the top 250 independent schools in the country). It will mean none of the students will achieve an English baccalaureate, despite achieving very good standards."
Other independent schools excelled under both the old and new methods of analysis. One hundred per cent of pupils at St Mary's Catholic Girls School in Shaftesbury achieved A* to C grades in the five core baccalaureate subjects.
Sherborne Girls' score of 99 per cent went down to 67 per cent under the new scheme.
The Bryanston School in Blandford went from 100 per cent to 76 per cent and Leweston independent girls school went from 94 per cent to 61 per cent. Gillingham School went from 72 per cent to 48 per cent and Sturminster Newton High School figures dropped from 66 per cent to 11 per cent.
Sturminster headteacher Jayne Barron said only 12 pupils had taken the right combination of subjects and achieved the required grades in all of them.
"It is ridiculous. They are changing the goalposts significantly. Not knowing that this was going to be the case, schools have opened up their curriculum and haven't forced students to take these core subjects. We may have to go back to a very rigid structure."
In contrast to school systems in most other countries, maths, science and English have been the only mandatory GCSE subjects for British pupils since reforms brought in under Labour in 2004. The shift saw a rise in popularity of vocational courses such as information technology, while the take-up of traditional subjects like French and the sciences plummeted. Mr Gove has said he was keen to offer British pupils a baccalaureate similar to those available in much of Europe and Asia.
Geoff Cook, head of the Dorset division of the National Union of Teachers, reacted angrily to the proposals, which have yet to be formally agreed.
He said: "This will be harping back to the old style of grammar school teaching that Tory education secretaries have peddled whenever they have been in power.
"There will be utter dismay among teachers because from our point of view we have moved on to teaching a 21st century curriculum that is more vocational and tailored to a modern economy. If we are to compete with the Chinese and the Japanese we need to teach subjects like ICT, design and technology, and arts and crafts, not go back to the days of reciting Shakespeare from memory or learning the kings and queens of England by rote. Michael Gove's proposals would be a massive step backwards."
Head teachers were indignant at being judged on different criteria to those they had been working towards.
Steve Hillier, head teacher of The Gryphon School in Sherborne, said: "This is a new measure that the new Government has just brought it. It has been introduced retrospectively in that we were completely unaware we would be judged on these criteria.
"The Gryphon is a specialist business and enterprise school, but this new measure does not count business studies or information technology as core subjects. There is an important debate to be had about whether vocational or traditional subjects will better prepare our young people for the future."
Shaftesbury School head teacher, David Booth, said: "This decision had not been taken when students sat their exams this year. As a result, any changes in curriculum will take a couple of years to implement. Shaftesbury School does, however, believe that it is right to follow a broad and balanced curriculum, which meets the needs, skills and aptitudes of all of its students to achieve success."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said it would continue to use the old system as well as the new criteria for the time being.
She said: "We would not expect Ofsted to focus on the Ebac measure to judge schools at this point as we recognise that it will take time for schools to change their curriculum. In future, we want pupils who achieve the English baccalaureate to be able to claim a certificate to mark their achievement. It represents a core we think all schools should be making available to their pupils.
"We do, however, recognise the full range of the baccalaureate will not be suitable for all pupils and that is why we have not made it compulsory."
To see a full list of all the data, go to www.education.gov.uk/performancetables