Government policies to improve education standards

Information on relevant Government policies can be found in other Commons Library briefings:

Schools: provisional primary and GCSE performance data for 2018

Primary – Key stage 2

At the end of the primary phase of schooling, children in state-funded schools in England undertake National Curriculum Assessments, commonly known as SATs.

The Department for Education published provisional KS2 results for 2018 in September. On recent trends in attainment, the accompanying text noted:

The combined reading, writing, and maths measure uses the reading and maths test results along with the outcome of the writing teacher assessment (TA). To reach the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths, a pupil must achieve a scaled score of 100 or more in reading and maths tests and an outcome of ‘reaching the expected standard’ or ‘working at greater depth’ in writing TA. Together, these subjects give a broad measure of pupil attainment.

In 2018, 64% of pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths, while 10% of pupils reached the higher standard. Attainment in all of reading, writing and maths is not directly comparable to previous years because of changes to writing TA frameworks. In 2017, 61% of pupils reached the expected standard in all of reading, writing and maths compared to 53% in 2016; 9% reached a higher standard in reading, writing and maths compared to 5% in 2016.

Key Stage 4 – GCSEs and equivalents

The DfE published provisional data for 2018 on pupils’ performance in examinations at the end of compulsory schooling – i.e., GCSEs or equivalents – in October. On some headline measures, it is difficult to compare performance across years owing to changes to qualifications and their value in performance tables.

43% of state-school pupils attained a grade 5 or higher in GCSE English and maths or equivalents in 2018, compared to 42.2% in 2017. The 2018 data is subject to later updates. 

Ofsted annual report 2016-17

Ofsted publishes an annual report sumarising trends in inspection findings. The conclusions of the latest report, relating to 2016-17 and published in December 2017, included that:

  • The quality of early years providers had continued to improve; 94% were judged good or outstanding, compared to 2012 when the proportion was just 74%.
  • 90% of primary schools and 79% of secondary schools were judged good or outstanding at the time of publication. Secondary schools, special schools and pupil referral units had “all improved their position to a small degree compared to last year”. (p7)
  • In the inspectorate’s opinion, institutions and individuals best placed to tackle school improvement were “spread too thinly”. (p7)
  • Concern remained about a very small minority of schools that had not improved enough over very many years. This included some whose “underperformance has lasted for a decade or more” (p7)
  • The inspectorate also argued that improvements in test scores did not necessarily indicate an improvement in education standards, observing that “Exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round” (p8).

More children in good and outstanding schools?

On 8 October 2018, Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, raising “serious concerns” about the Department for Education’s “presentation and use” of statistics. He had earlier received a letter from Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Angela Rayner, about related matters. Among other things, Sir David criticised:

  • Government claims about England’s performance in the PIRLS international assessment of reading skills. He said that the assertion that England had “leapfrogged up the rankings last year, after decades of falling standards, going from 19th out of 50 countries to 8th” was “not correct. […] Figures published last year show the increase was from 10th place in 2011 to 8th place in 2016.”
  • The Government’s unqualified use of a figure that “appears to show a substantial increase in the number of children in high performing schools, as judged by OFSTED”. This, Sir David said, was “accurate as far as it goes” but did not give a full picture because pupil numbers had been rising at the same time, inspection frameworks had changed, and some high-performing schools hadn’t been inspected for some while.

Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP responded to Sir David’s letter, saying that the Government wanted “all departmental statistics to be both factually accurate and used in the right context”.

Commentary on trends in education standards


Further and higher education

Parliamentary material



  • Debate on spending of the Department for Education, HC Deb 3 July 2018, vol 644 cc206-239.


  • PQ HL10173, 17 September 2018 (on the gaming of school league tables).
  • PQ 158734, 12 July 2018 (on reducing the attainment gap)
  • PQ HL8816, 4 July 2018 (on the number of children in ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools).


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