PUBLIC attention on Ruth Kelly yesterday was concentrated on her ability to get a grip on the uncertainties surrounding the employment of teachers who have, or might have, a record of inappropriate behaviour with children. It is natural that parents should want security in this matter to be a given throughout their children's years at school. However, there was other news from the Department of Education yesterday, about GCSE results, which in the long term must concern Ms Kelly as much as the largely administrative challenge of getting appropriate machinery in place to ensure comprehensive monitoring of applicants for teaching jobs. On the face of it the release of last year's GCSE examination results was encouraging. Just over 56 per cent of 15-year-olds obtained what were described as five good GCSEs, a 2.6 per cent rise over 2004 that seemed to justify ministers' claims that Britain's schools had made the biggest single improvement in standards for a decade. However, closer analysis of these results shows that if English and Maths are included in the five good subjects, the pass rate plummets to a little over 44 per cent, a fall of 12 per cent in the past decade. In other words the improvement has been achieved by substituting easier vocational subjects for the two which form the basis of lifetime achievement, the ability to read and write and to count. No wonder employers complain that school-leavers are not equipped for the real world and even universities have to provide their chosen candidates with supplementary teaching in these subjects. A further disappointment in the latest GCSE results was in the performance of Mr Blair's flagship City Academies. Of the 27 Academies in operation, 14 returned results of which half were among the worst performing schools in the country. In fairness, these semi-independent schools, established by private funding, are new and have usually replaced other schools that had totally failed, but even so the outcome is disappointing. All these results provide the background to the new Education Bill which is now Ms Kelly's biggest challenge. League tables have their critics, and they need to be interpreted carefully, but without them it would be very difficult to get an adequte, if depressing, snapshot of the state of British education today.
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