Primary School League Tables: Standards soar across the country

The trend this year is encouraging, but more information is needed on the best performing children. By Judith Judd
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The Independent Online
Primary schools are improving dramatically after the Government's insistence that standards will rise only if schools get the basics right in the early years. Test results for 11-year-olds show a leap of 10 per cent in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standards in maths (up to 69 per cent) and a rise of 5 per cent in English (to 70 per cent). David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has set targets of 80 per cent reaching the standards in English and 75 per cent in maths for the year 2002.

Whatever their misgivings, teachers have responded impressively to a series of new initiatives which have sometimes set their heads spinning. Ministers explain the big improvement by pointing to the new literacy hour, the daily period of reading and writing based on what the Government calls "tried and tested methods", which was introduced just over a year ago. They also argue that the numeracy hour, which went nationwide this term but was in use in most schools last year, has done wonders for children's mental arithmetic.

But the explanation cannot be quite so simple. Science has no dedicated hour and no target - but its results went up by 9 per cent to 78 per cent. Perhaps that is because of a change of culture which is raising teachers' sights across the board. Or perhaps it reveals that testing has become an accepted part of primary school life for the first time since the disappearance of the 11-plus. Three years ago, revision and practice papers were rare. Now, schools have decided that practice makes perfect.

The Primary School League Tables that we publish today underline the rising trend of results. They should also allow parents to compare their local schools and to see how their children's schools are performing compared with others nationwide. The tables also show whether schools are improving year on year and whether they are doing so as fast as their neighbours. The score for 1996 is given alongside this year's figure.

In the past, such tables have produced shocks. Schools which are much sought after by middle-class parents have produced results not much better than those in less desirable parts of town. The difference between scores for the three subjects, English, maths and science should also prompt parental questions. If the score for, say, English is much better than the score for maths, parents should query whether the English teaching is much better than maths teaching. Sometimes there may be good reasons why pupils are achieving much better marks in one subject than another: for example, maths results may outstrip those in English in schools which have a high proportion of children whose first language is not English.

But a definitive picture of schools' performance is not to be had through the tables. They give us only the proportion of pupils reaching Level 4, the expected standard for an 11-year-old in English, maths and science, or better. They also give an aggregate for the three subjects which is used to rank schools within local authorities. (Local authorities are listed alphabetically.)

They do not, however, show the proportion of pupils reaching Level 5, the standard of pupils who are above average. That may be of more interest to middle-class parents, particularly now that the proportion reaching Level 4 is rising so steeply. The case for including an indicator for Level 5 is growing by the year.

Schools also complain that the tables take no account of social differences between intakes, and that the scores make no allowance for the proportion of pupils with special educational needs. Nor do they allow for pupil absences which may make a big difference to scores in a small school.

Choosing a primary school can be tricky even for the astute parent. In the last few years, there have been high profile cases of schools in middle- class areas which appeared to be flying high - until the inspectors went in and discovered that, given their pupils' intelligence, they should have been doing much, much better. Ministers have acknowledged that too many of these schools are slipping through the inspection net and have said that in future such "coasting" schools will be told to do better. The Level 5 indicator and even the proportion awarded Level 6, the standard achieved by the most outstanding pupils, would help to identify these schools.

Finally, no test is perfect. A recent inquiry into the reliability of English testing at 11 gave it high marks in comparison with testing in many other countries. But, just as children failed the 11-plus because they had an off day, they may do worse than their parents or teachers expect. Or they may simply be slow developers. Whatever their results, secondary school beckons, and the chance of a new beginning.

QUICK GUIDE TO THE TABLES

The tables rank English primary schools within their local authorities by this year's Government test results of 11-year-olds in English, maths and science.

Level four is the standard expected for 11-year-olds.

In English, 70 per cent reached level four, in maths, 69 per cent, in science 78 per cent.

Above-average schools in affluent areas may still be coasting because they are not stretching pupils enough. Below average schools in poorer areas may be doing a better job with their pupils.

Beware uneven scores. If, for example, the score for English is much better than the score for maths, parents should query whether the English teaching is much better than maths teaching.

The tables do not show the proportion of pupils reaching Level five or six. Pupils sitting the 14-year-old tests are expected to be between level five and six but increasing numbers of bright 11-year-olds are hitting these higher targets.(Tables not included)

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