Is your child's school as good as you think it is?

Sarah Strickland asks the questions that will help parents to read between the lines of the performance tables
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The Independent Online
Q. What is the point of publishing league tables?

A. According to the Government, they are part of the "information revolution" promised in the Parents' Charter. Parents, it believes, have the right to know how well individual schools are performing and one of the best ways of doing that is to look at exam results. Although the Government insists that the tables are not "league" but "performance" tables, since the schools are ranked alphabetically rather than in order of success, parents are nonetheless invited to compare schools and local authorities.

Critics argue that the tables don't present enough information and are therefore unhelpful, misleading and potentially damaging, hiding both mediocrity and excellence; they should be read with caution and scepticism. Research shows that most parents are aware of their limited usefulness and are doing just that.

Q. What can the tables tell me?

A. Relatively little, since they present raw results in a crude form, in terms of qualifications gained. They tell you what percentage of pupils aged 15 at the start of the school year gained passes at GCSE and the average points scored at A and A/S level by pupils aged 16 to 18. The full version available from the Department for Education and Employment gives vocational qualification pass rates, information about rates of absence from school and numbers of pupils with special needs. A skim through the pass rates will tell you that selective schools achieve better results than comprehensive schools - no great revelation.

Q. What's wrong with the way the results are presented?

A. The GCSE results focus on the proportion of pupils gaining five or more top grades (A* to C). This is a false cut-off point that consolidates the old idea of a pass/fail at grade C when all grades are now considered passes. It discounts anyone with four good results mixed with other, lower grades and pupils with a decent spread of results across the board. Some papers print the overall results but schools inevitably tend to be judged on the first column.

The results of pupils who take GCSE subjects early - for example, it is not uncommon for maths to be taken a year early by the top maths set in a selective independent school - are not included separately. Instead they are included in the results for the academic year in which they become 16.

The results of pupils who take their GCSEs late don't appear - for schools with a high proportion of pupils with English as a second language this is a problem. There is now an additional column taking these figures into account but most newspapers won't print it.

The A-level results are done on a points system, giving 10 points for a grade A and two points for an E. Although one advanced GNVQ is roughly the equivalent of two A-Levels, the vocational qualifications have not been converted into point scores so comparisons are impossible.

Q. Does "unauthorised" absence refer to truancy?

A. Not solely, although some papers refer to it as such; it includes both truancy and absences unauthorised by the school but condoned by the parents. It may even include children who are late. And since some children register before disappearing, it might not even include all truancy. So the figures are pretty meaningless. Schools have been encouraged not to authorise parentally condoned absence, yet this looks bad in print, especially for schools with large numbers of ethnic minority pupils who may take a lot of time off to visit relatives abroad. A high rate of truancy would come up in an Ofsted inspection report.

Q. What is missing from the tables?

A. Most crucially, the figures are not given any context. Private and state are distinguished but that is about as far as it goes. Deprived inner-city schools are mixed with affluent suburban ones. You can glean nothing from these tables about the nature of a school's intake and nothing about how pupils have progressed during their time there. Were the children bright and well-motivated when they arrived or of low ability? For how many is English a second language? The tables also tell you nothing about variations from subject to subject.

Q. What does that mean in practice?

A. Schools with able pupils may be sitting on their laurels, happy with their ranking and failing to help pupils reach their full potential. A school with less able pupils, meanwhile, might be achieving superb results for those pupils but never have a hope of seeing its success reflected in the tables. One school might be good at nurturing high achievers but bad at getting results from strugglers, another the reverse. Such differences are all-important but too subtle for these tables. Research into how best to illustrate pupil progress is being conducted but until then the tables will continue to appear in their present form.

Q. Can schools manipulate the figures?

A. GCSE results are now based on the whole school population, avoiding the danger that pupils would not be entered for subjects that they had little chance of doing well in, so that their results would not show up. There is little schools can do, other than give false information, but there is some fear that D-grade pupils might receive extra attention in an attempt to push them up to C, while those in the higher and lower brackets are left to fend for themselves.

It has been suggested that some schools might be getting pupils to sit an extra A level to boost their overall point score - even a low grade would do this.

Q. The results of the school I'd chosen for my child have fallen quite significantly this year - should I think again?

A. Not necessarily. It's worth asking the school for an explanation, but it is quite common for results to fluctuate. It might have been a particularly weak year group or there could have been some population movement. It's also worth remembering that for someone considering sending their child into the first year, these results are out of date. The school will have changed since those pupils entered it five years ago - possibly quite dramatically. There may be a new head, a weak department may have been improved, a strong one may have deteriorated.

Q. What is a better indicator of a school's success?

A. Obviously, the best thing to do is visit the school, talk to teachers and pupils and see some lessons. The school prospectus is also worth studying carefully. Here the results will be printed in far more detail, subject by subject, giving you a clearer idea of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. You will find that a school whose overall results are the national average might be achieving some very varied results. Pupils might be attaining either very high or very low results in one subject, indicating that that particular department is bad at helping low achievers. A school might have high results for business studies and expressive arts but low results in the core subjects of maths, English and science. The national league tables can disguise the real picture!

A fuller set of results for each local authority is available free by phoning FREEPHONE 0800 242322 or by writing to School and College Performance Tables, DFEE, FREEPOST (LON6283), London E3 3BR, quoting the name of the local education authority or the 16-18 table required.