New fears as teenage pupils' marks slip

STEVE DOWNES Continuing improvement in the GCSE performance of thousands of East Anglian teenagers was under threat last night after a sudden dip in crucial test results.

STEVE DOWNES

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By STEVE DOWNES, Education correspondent

Continuing improvement in the GCSE performance of thousands of East Anglian teenagers was under threat last night after a sudden dip in crucial test results.

English, maths and science marks in the key stage three standard assessment tests (Sats) for 14-year-olds fell back or stalled almost across the board in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

Frustrated industry leaders hit out at the decline, particularly in maths and science, saying it was hampering Britain's ability to compete internationally.

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There was a particularly sudden drop among the brightest youngsters as the percentage of those achieving level six - a step above the target level five - plummeted.

The dip in teenagers getting level five in maths was reflected by a 1pc drop nationally. But both English and science performance improved by 1pc on average across the country.

Norfolk education chiefs said they were “disappointed” that the recent upward trend had not been maintained, but pointed to consistent improvements in recent years.

However, the results for 14-year-olds are seen as a barometer for future exam results, and could have a knock-on effect when the same children take their GCSEs in 2009 and even their A-levels in 2011.

The slump in maths and science follows years of outspoken comments by business and industry leaders, complaining at the dearth of such skills among new employees.

Last night a regional spokesman for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said: “Some employers are already finding it difficult to get the right talent, and the problem is set to get worse.

“The UK cannot compete with the developing world on low-skilled jobs, so to thrive in the global market we must excel in the high-skilled roles that demand expertise and innovation.”

He said the problems started with a “pared-back science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and patchy classroom facilities”.

In Norfolk, results fell back by 2pc in maths and 1pc in science, while they remained the same in English - pushing the county down from 57th to 64th in the table of 150 local authorities.

Fred Corbett, Norfolk's deputy director of children's services, said: “We are pleased Norfolk's figures remain above the national average in maths and science and within one percentage point in English.

“We are, however, disappointed this year's results haven't maintained the upward trend of previous year. But with three-quarters of Norfolk's 14-year-olds getting the national standard in English, maths and science, this continues to augur well for their future success.”

In Suffolk, results slipped in English and stayed the same in maths and science - leaving it 50th among the 150 local authorities. In Cambridgeshire, which stands 27th, there was a dip in English, a slight improvement in maths and no change for science.

Despite a small overall improvement nationally, the government was accused of being complacent after the results fell well short of long-cherished targets.

Figures showed a fall in the proportion of pupils making the grade in the maths, while overall English results were no better than two years ago.

Shadow schools minister Nick Gibb said: “With English results back to where they were two years ago, it is clear there is a serious problem. The government's response to these results is complacent.”

Liberal Democrat schools spokesman Stephen Williams said ministers had fallen “woefully short” of their own targets.

Ministers set targets for 85pc of 14-year-olds to pass their national tests in English and maths at Level 5 by 2007. But only 74pc of pupils reached this level in English. And just 76pc did so in maths.

Schools minister Jim Knight stressed that the trend since 1997 was for standards to rise.

“Whilst I'm disappointed to see a drop in maths and writing, it's important to put this into context. The overall trend remains upwards and there have been dips in the past that have been quickly reversed.”

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