Leading Article: We must not ignore this huge gulf in school standards

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The Independent Culture
"GIVE US a boy to the age of seven, and we will give you the man," reckoned the Jesuits. Dressed up in more gender-neutral language, the Government would agree. That is why it regards the primary school league table - which are published today, covering more than 13,000 schools in England and Wales - as so important. If the children are educated properly, the argument runs, there may be some hope for the teenagers.

The Government proclaims that people want technocrats, not ideologues. Therefore, its stress on being able to deliver the basics. Therefore, too, the rather moronic refrain "education, education, education". As part of its drive to improve schools, the Government has set standards which 11-year-olds must reach. In English, 80 per cent of children should have reached the standard by the end of this parliament, and 75 per cent in maths. The new league table shows that the initial acceleration towards these targets is now over. The number of children achieving the required standard in maths has fallen by 3 per cent from last year; in English, there is little movement.

The Government will blame this flattening of the learning curve in maths on the, admittedly popular, introduction of the teaching of mental arithmetic. But that explanation ignores the huge disparities there are between the schools at the top and those at the bottom of the league tables. In the worst school in the country, only 15 per cent of pupils achieved the required standard in English, and only 4 per cent in maths, while in the best 27 schools, all the children achieved the standard in both. Such vast differences between schools are unacceptable.

There are few surprises when we look at the tables and see where the good and the bad schools are: the best are in the two car suburbs to the west of London; the worst are in London's impoverished East End.

Such analyses can mask the great divisions that exist within regions - and that is where these tables can help both teachers and parents to expose incompetent practice. If neighbouring schools with similar pupils are achieving widely diverging results, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the fault lies either with the teachers or with their methods. Parents can use these tables to test the anecdotal evidence on the merits of their children's schools - though the tables would have been more useful if they had been published earlier in the academic year, when parents are deciding where to send their children.

Divisions among schools within the same local authority area will not disappear by having money thrown at them indiscriminately. Schools need innovative and inspirational headteachers if they are to maintain their momentum in the rough terrain ahead. Such teachers will not, and should not, come cheap.