You can learn loads from league tables - except whether a school's any good

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's a brave person who ignores government approved league tables these days. Either that, or it's someone who understands both statistics and children.

Bloody league tables. You may rightly assume from this that my children's school did not do too well in them. From being about midway down the borough's table last year we had slipped dangerously close to the bottom, fraternising with the schools that are used around here as bogey men to frighten nice middle-class children ("If you don't eat up your crusts you'll go to that school down the road where all the girls are called Kylie and all the boys wear earrings").

Parents who had their children's names down for the school next year are getting cold feet - after all, it's a brave person who ignores government- approved league tables these days. Either that, or it's someone who understands both statistics and children, because the truth, as will be revealed after several years of see-sawing results, is that in one-form entry school, in particular, results will differ, sometimes quite dramatically, from year to year. The education on offer is just the same, the teacher - in our case - was just the same but the children were different.

In a small class you need only one high-achieving child to be away, and a couple of others to miss level 4 by a whisker, for results to be well and truly skewed. Add to that a higher than average number of children with special needs and you have a recipe for one thoroughly demoralised head teacher. Yes, but who wants to be in a class with lots of low-achieving children, you may wonder? Ask the parents of the child in that class who already had two GCSEs under his belt, and the one who got the scholarship to private school, and the others who got into highly selective schools without private coaching. (Ironically, had there been a separate league table for children achieving levels 5 & 6, ie beyond what is expected of them, our school would have been close to the top of the table). Ask, for that matter, the parents of the special-needs child for whom a level 2 or 3 is something to celebrate.

You can tell a lot from league tables - you can tell what the catchment area is like, you can tell when a school has cheated, when it has taught to the tests or targeted borderline level 4 children, neglecting no-hopers as well as those who could achieve level 5 or 6. But you can't necessarily tell whether a school is any good.

Sadly, however, even some of the teaching profession is now adopting the heresy. At a conference on the new literacy requirements, a delegation from a group of higher-achieving schools (ie the ones from affluent catchment areas, where half the children have private tutors from the age of seven) asked why they should have to adopt the new literacy strategies when they were already doing a "good" job - implying, thereby, that their colleagues, who work with a broader range of children, are doing a "bad" job.

Poor dears, though. They were all terribly excited about the venue for this conference, the newly finished NEC Harlequins. New carpets! Comfortable chairs! Lights! Being treated as civilised human beings was obviously a new experience - when we were sent off in groups to private rooms they fell upon the refreshments with tears of gratitude. Coca Cola! Fanta! Sprite! "Ooh, they've been chilled ..." I can see why the government won't give them a decent pay rise - the excitement would kill them.

But it's not all been doom and gloom this week. On Monday my friend Laura told me that her son Tom had pointed out a picture of me in the newspaper - and it turned out to be Julie Christie. I was so thrilled that I quite forgot to ask whether it was pre- or post- facelift. My heightened self-esteem didn't last long, however. "Look, it's you Mum!" shouted my five-year-old, that same day, stabbing her finger at my newspaper.

Goodness, it could get quite tiresome being constantly mistaken for a fabulously beautiful actress, I sighed, as I glanced over at the picture of ... Elizabeth Buttle, the 60-year-old mother. Am thinking of asking Laura if she'll swap children.

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