Education: Schools that have beat the system to make their mark

Educationists opposed to school league tables based on raw exam scores have hailed a league based on sustained improvement as a step in the right direction. But, ask Lucy Ward and Judith Judd, can the schools in the new table really be fairly compared?

The heads of two very different schools at the top of the new improvement league have one response in common to their sudden dose of public acclaim.

Both Lyndon Jones, principal of Harris City Technology College in Croydon, and Alasdair Macdonald, headteacher of Morpeth School, in east London, believe the table has provided well-deserved recognition for schools which have no chance of scaling the heights of the raw scores premier league, occupied by some of the country's most selective institutions.

However, while the two schools may both be making impressive headway, critics of the previous government's education policy claim they were never on the same starting line.

Harris, founded in 1990, is one of 14 CTCs - the business-sponsored brainchild of then-education secretary Kenneth Baker. With pounds 1.25m over five years from its benefactor, the carpet king Lord Harris, the college was able to equip itself with 350 computers, a fibre optics network and - naturally - new carpeting for the former local education authority-run school whose buildings it took over.

Morpeth is housed mainly in 100-year-old red brick Victorian buildings in Bethnal Green. On its present roll, 70 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals - three times the proportion at Harris CTC - while for some 60 per cent English is a second language.

For Harris CTC, Lyndon Jones points out, the sustained improvement which has seen the college leap to the top of the Government's new league extends even further back than the chosen start date of 1994. In its first year, fewer than 12 per cent of pupils gained at least five good GCSEs, while this year 64 per cent achieved that target.

The principal attributes the improvement to teachers' hard work and dedication, combined with the influence of the business world. Lord Harris, the first chair of governors and still a board member, helped instill techniques borrowed from the boardroom including benchmarking and target-setting.

Mr Jones, like other CTC principals, gives short shrift to suggestions that the college's selection policy could have influenced its impressive results record. Harris CTC selects a representative cross-section of abilities, but after that it sticks to its motto - "All can achieve".

In Bethnal Green, meanwhile, Morpeth school can safely guarantee its long climb to fourth in the improvement league has been achieved with no change in intake. The 40 per cent of pupils who gained five or more good GCSEs this summer were from a year group with an even lower ability profile than normal for the school.

The secret of success, says Alasdair Macdonald, was a reversal of the "anti-boffin culture" which prevented brighter pupils from being seen to work hard. Homework clubs and holiday revision courses helped instill an ethos of hard work, and improved results followed.

The school may be a model in the Government's eyes but its head will not accept the New Labour view that poverty is no excuse for failure. "It is not an excuse but to say it has no impact is unfair and unjust," Mr Macdonald said.

Professor Peter Mortimore, director of London University's Institute of Education, agreed. "I have grave reservations about the use of crude league tables. Any exam table which doesn't reflect the different backgrounds and abilities of pupils coming into the school can't really be used to judge the quality of teaching."

how the best and worst compare

Top 10 schools with the greatest sustained improvement (based on GSCE results between 1994-7 and including only schools which have improved each year. Excludes schools which entered fewer than 30 pupils.)

School % point increase in

GCSE score between

1994 and 1997

Harris City Technology College, Croydon 37%

Archbishop Temple School, Lancashire 35%

Bowland County High School, Lancashire 32%

Morpeth School, Tower Hamlets 29%

Bacon's College, Southwark 29%

Northampton (GM) School for Boys, Northants 28%

Chadwell Heath School, Redbridge 27%

Ibstock Place, Wandsworth 27%

Lordswood Girls' School, Birmingham 26%

Ribston Hall High School, Gloucestershire 26%

Top 10 non-selective state schools at GCSE

School Proportion of pupils

gaining at least five GCSEs

at grade A*-C

Old Swinford Hospital, Stourbridge 98%

Watford Grammar School for Girls 93%

The Coopers' Company and

Coborn School, Upminster 92%

The Hertfordshire and Essex High School,

Bishop's Stortford 90%

Watford Grammar School for Boys 89%

Emmanuel City Technology College, Gateshead 89%

Coloma Convent Girls' School, Croydon 89%

St Albans Girls' School, St Albans 88%

Sexey's School, Bruton 88%

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Penrith 87%

Bottom 10 non-selective state schools at GCSE

School Proportion of pupils gaining

at least five GCSEs at grade A*- C

The Ramsgate School, Kent 1%

William Crane Comprehensive School, Nottingham 2%

Campion Boys RC Comprehensive School, Liverpool 2%

High View School and Technology Centre, Derby 2%

Our Lady of Fatima High School, Liverpool 2%

Copperfields College, Leeds 3%

Handsworth Wood Boys' Birmingham 3%

Amy Johnson School, Hull 4%

Skerton High School, Lancaster 4%

Pen Park School, Bristol 4%

Source of data: Department for Education and Employment

Top five comprehensives at A-level

School Average A-level points score

(for pupils taking two or more A-levels:

A-grade scores 10 points and E scores two)

Lady Manners School, Bakewell 24.8%

King Ecgbert School, Sheffield 24.6%

Alsager School, Stoke-on-Trent 24.2%

The Coopers' Company and Coborn

(GM) School, Upminster 24.2%

Lady Lumley's School School, Pickering 24.0%

Thomas Alleyne's High School, Uttoxeter 24.0%

Top five independent schools at A-level

School Average A-level points score (for pupils taking two or

more A-levels: A-grade scores 10 points, E scores two)

King Edward's School, Birmingham 36.9%

Withington Girls' School, Manchester 36.8%

King Edward VI High School for Girls 35.8%

The Lady Eleanor Holles School, Hampton 35.3%

St Swithun's School, Winchester 34.7%

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