Leading article: We need a debate on league tables

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Education Secretary Alan Johnson is right to call for a national debate about how to measure the performance of schools. His point is that the exam league tables - which, by and large, rank schools according to the percentage of pupils obtaining at least five A* to C grade passes - are too narrow.

We agree. The result of the concentration on academic success and on A to C grades is that schools are encouraged to focus on pupils who might be borderline C/D grade passes. By paying attention to them, schools hope to improve their position in the league tables, to the detriment of the low achievers who are expected to achieve less. Even the Government's value-added tables - which highlight schools who have shown the most improvement in A* to C grade passes - and the new table showing the percentages achieving top-grade passes in English and maths, suffer from the same problem.

At a conference for newly qualified headteachers last week, Johnson floated the idea of setting targets for individual pupils of improvements expected of them in core subjects at the national curriculum key stages. The school that managed to get the largest percentage of pupils to reach their individual goals would show up best in this performance table. Such a measure would draw attention to what schools had managed to achieve for their low achievers as well as their high-flyers.

The question with this measure is: would it get enough attention from the media if it were published alongside the much-easier-to-understand and already established league table showing the percentage of pupils gaining more than five top-grade GCSE passes? The answer is, almost certainly, no. One way round the problem might be to publish each measure separately; in other words, on different occasions. That way, they would not be competing in the media for attention.

The truth is that the second table, showing how all pupils fared against their own individual targets, would be a much better indication of teaching quality in a school than the old-fashioned league table of GCSE "passes" - which would still have schools in the leafy suburbs at the top and struggling inner-city ones at the bottom. The challenge then, over a period of time, would be to persuade parents and the general public that this was the case.