Schools pay private companies to teach speedy GCSE equivalents

A private firm is offering schools an £800-per-pupil deal where external staff are parachuted in to teach year 11s a GCSE-equivalent qualification in two weeks.

Private company PET-Xi – which promises to deliver “intensive, results-based interventions” – wrote to heads advertising its business and enterprise qualification counts in the “third bucket” of progress measures, assuring them it is “approved for 2019 performance tables”.

The email stated external staff could teach the subject in just two weeks.

Meanwhile hundreds of schools are using another company called iAchieve for online courses which the firm states can “maximise group 3 progress”.

Testimonials on its website claim pass rates shot up for schools involved. Following Schools Week queries, the testimonials were removed.

School experts have been clear it is not unusual or wrong for companies to help schools deliver vocational qualifications, particularly given recruitment issues.

However, a spokesperson for SSAT, a network for teachers, said members would be “very critical” of schools which allowed qualifications to be taught in less than the 120 guided hours recommended by Ofqual.

Nor should they enter pupils for qualifications “just for performance tables” they added.

The disclosures follow concerns over schools appearing to “game” league tables.

Ofsted said last month that inspectors were alarmed by pupils achieving higher results in bucket 3 qualifications than in “core” subjects, and will scrutinise any unusual entry patterns.

The government has already removed a previously approved vocational qualification, the European Computer Driving Licence, from bucket 3 of Progress 8 accountability measures. It followed extensive Schools Week investigations that revealed droves of schools were entering pupils, despite claims it could be taught it in just three days.

An email from PET-Xi, first revealed by the Education Uncovered website, says the company charges schools a package totalling £833 per pupil for up to five members of staff to teach the NCFE level 2 certificate in Business and Enterprise over two weeks. Homework and additional help are provided.

The company’s site says it delivers “intensive, results-based interventions”. A spokesperson added the course “complements work already done by schools”.

However when asked whether year 11 pupils study the NCFE certificate before PET-Xi arrive, the spokesperson said “typically, pupils won’t have encountered the qualification previously”.

Brian Lightman, an educational consultant, said vocational qualifications are valuable because “a diet of entirely traditional GCSE qualifications” does not suit many pupils.

However enlisting external staff was unusual, and delivering core teaching over two weeks would be “almost impossible”, he added.

Meanwhile tweets from iAchieve state their courses can “maximise group 3 progress”.

This year the company, which was founded in 2016, has 330 schools paying for online courses that cover NCFE Level 2s in business and enterprise, food and cookery, health and fitness, engineering studies and child development, said chief executive Jonathan Ovenden.

He said vocational qualifications have been denigrated since Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary, and many schools lack the confidence to offer them.

The company removed several testimonials boasting of increased pass rates after Schools Week made enquiries.

Paul Healy, vice principal at Ormiston Rivers Academy in Essex, was quoted as saying pupils moved from a PE GCSE on to the health and fitness certificate via iAchieve with a 97 per cent pass rate. He said the school was hoping to get 100 per cent merit grades next year.

National figures show 70 per cent of GCSE PE pupils got a “strong” pass or above last year.

Mike Clay, Ormiston Rivers’ head of PE, was quoted as saying they switched to the qualification because they felt it was “less practically demanding, would suit our learners and indeed a wider range of learners”.

A spokesperson for Ormiston Academies Trust, which has 37 schools, said the qualifications are challenging and help to engage pupils.

iAchieve is currently promoted at events run by PiXL, the same network which backed ECDL before it was scrapped from league tables.

Sir John Rowling, PiXL’s founding director, said iAchieve offers “brilliant support”, but he wouldn’t advocate entering an entire year group or teaching courses over a few days or weeks.

NCFE’s qualification specification states its business course requires 125 guided learning hours, plus a five-hour assessment.

A spokesperson for the awarding organisation said some centres “may flex” the total amount of time usually taken to deliver their qualifications “as new and innovative teaching models are developed, such as intensive delivery”.

But they do not monitor teaching hours, nor approve or endorse delivery models.