Primary School League Tables: Questions remain: do the results add up?

Many teachers argue the tables present a distorted picture. Others say they are a spur to improvement
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The Independent Online
THIS YEAR'S primary league tables for more than 13,000 English schools and nearly 600,000 pupils show that the improvement in national curriculum test results for 11-year-olds has slowed.

While the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in English is up from 63 to 65 per cent the figure for maths is down from 62 to 59 per cent. Experts say the introduction of mental arithmetic tests is partly to blame. The figure for science remains at 69 per cent.

This year, 27 schools succeeded in bringing all their pupils up to Level 4 in all three subjects compared with 46 last year.

The tests give the latest indication of the Government's success in meeting its literacy and numeracy targets in primary schools. It wants 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the expected standard in English by 2002 and 75 per cent to do so in maths.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has cut back the primary curriculum to allow schools to spend more time on English and maths. He described these two subjects as "the building blocks" of the national curriculum.

This is only the second time that primary performance tables have been published by the Government. Three years ago, the Conservative government produced the information for the first time but the Labour government said when it came to power that it would leave publication to local authorities. Estelle Morris, the schools minister, argued that local publication would speed up the process so that parents would have the results in time to help them choose schools. In the event, national newspapers collected the information from local authorities and printed their own tables. This year, the tables are again based on information collected locally and processed nationally by the Department for Education and Employment. They appear after most parents have already chosen a primary school for September.

A national listing allows parents to compare their local authority schools with others and to see the wider picture. The tables show the proportion of 11-year-olds in each school who reached Level 4, the standard expected for their age, in English, maths and science tests, which were taken last May. Totals for the three subjects have been aggregated and schools have been ranked within local authorities according to the aggregate figure.

Teachers still argue that the publication of league tables, particularly for primary schools, is unfair. Though confidence in the tests is growing, some teachers remain convinced that they are less reliable than the GCSE and A-level results on which the secondary school league tables are based. Earlier this year, Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, told a seminar of academics that the tests were unreliable and that some schools were cheating. However, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority now carries out random checks on schools and has introduced strict rules to prevent schools opening test papers in advance.

Schools also complain that results are likely to fluctuate more widely in primary schools because pupil numbers tend to be small. Schools are judged mainly by the performance of those who took the tests measured against the total of those eligible for testing. That means that pupils who are absent either because they are ill or for other reasons may make a big difference to a school's ranking, particularly if it is small.

Pupils with special educational needs may also be included in the total of eligible pupils, though schools can apply for exemptions for those with severe learning difficulties. Between 2 and 3 per cent of all pupils have statements of special educational needs but many of these still take the tests. As in previous years, the tables omit schools with fewer than 10 pupils taking the tests. Ministers believe individual children may be identified if the small schools are listed.

Because pupil numbers vary in different years, some schools which were in the listings last year do not appear in this supplement. Others appear for the first time. Special schools are excluded.

We have included figures for schools' performance in 1997 as well as 1998 though the size of many primary schools means that the value of comparisons between the two years is limited.

The tables take no account of schools' different intakes so some schools with modest scores may be performing better than others whose score appears better but who are failing to stretch bright pupils.

There are wide variations not only between schools but also between local education authorities. Richmond upon Thames, for example, has almost reached the Government's 80 per cent target for English, but in Nottingham the proportion of pupils reaching Level 4 in English is less than half. League tables remain controversial. Many heads and teachers argue that they present a distorted picture. Others accept the Government's contention that they are a spur to improvement.

No primary tables are published in Scotland, which has a different system of assessment. After a consultation last year, the Welsh Office decided to keep the present system for primary tables which does not involve results for individual schools. Only the aggregate figure for each local authority is published.

Judith Judd is the Education Editor of `The Independent'