Private schools such as Eton, whose pupils take international GCSEs, fared particularly badly in the data
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Secondary school headteachers across England have dismissed government league tables published on Thursday as a “nonsense”, as a result of the coalition’s radical overhauls to the exam system and the types of qualification included in the list.

In particular, private schools whose pupils take international GCSE exams fared very badly in the latest data, since ministers announced last summer that these would be excluded from the tables.

At Eton, Harrow and Wycombe Abbey, three of the country’s most famous private schools, only 35 per cent, 19 per cent and 13 per cent of pupils respectively achieved at least five GCSEs at A*-C grade or equivalent, according to the Department for Education.

Further consternation has been caused by the government’s ban on pupils being allowed to resit exams several times, which heads say will make it difficult to compare the current results with those in previous years.

Partly as a result of these changes, some 330 state secondary schools failed to see 40 per cent of their pupils achieve at least five A*-C grades, up from 154 last year. On average 56.6 per cent of pupils in state schools secured five such grades.

It is likely that the problems of comparison will increase when the first pupils sit tougher GCSEs in English and Maths from 2017, as part of reforms to bring more rigour to the exam system, largely abolishing coursework.

Ahead of the tables’ publication, Richard Harman, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents about 270 leading independent schools, said: “The decision to drop iGCSEs from the league tables over the next two years means those tables have become a nonsense”.

“Several of the UK’s most highly performing independent schools and others offering this excellent qualification will now appear to be bottom of the class in the government’s rankings,” Mr Harman, also headmaster of Uppingham school, added. “This obviously absurd situation creates further confusion for parents as they cannot compare schools’ performance accurately and transparently.”

However, he insisted that many private schools would continue to offer the iGCSE because they know what worked for their pupils, “regardless of the vagaries of political decision making”.

The Association of School and College Leaders has also criticised the government tables for not giving a “full picture” of the results. Brian Lightman, its general secretary, said: “We want parents to have as much information as possible, but it needs to be presented in a way that is genuinely useful.”

Responding to these complaints, Nicky Morgan, education secretary, defended the government’s changes to the exam system, arguing that for “too long” pupils had been offered courses of no value to them and that schools had felt pressured to put students in for exams before they were ready.

“By stripping out thousands of poor quality qualifications and removing resits from tables, some schools have seen changes in their standings,” Ms Morgan said. “But fundamentally young people’s achievement matters more than being able to trumpet ever higher grades. Now pupils are spending more time in the classroom, not constantly sitting exams, and 90,000 more children are taking core academic subjects that will help them succeed in work and further study.”

The government’s decision to strip low-quality vocational qualifications from the tables was made after recommendations in 2011 by Professor Alison Wolf, an expert in the nexus between education and the labour market. Michael Gove, who was education secretary at the time, also clamped down on schools entering pupils for GCSE exams early and for several resits, arguing that these institutions were “cheating” the system.

Tristram Hunt MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said the new system was “taking the country backwards and threatening standards”.

“Parents deserve to know exactly how their child’s school is performing — but under this government, all they’ve got is confusion.”

Additional reporting by John Aglionby

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