Secondary School League Tables: Getting the best from the tables

The secondary school performance tables have to be read with care as the raw figures hold traps for the unwary. But it is possible to use them intelligently.

This year's secondary school league tables offer a wealth of information about the state of the nation's schools - but not enough. Parents can see schools' raw scores for GCSE and A-level and the level of truancy for more than 5,000 schools. They can even compare a school's GCSE results this year with those three years ago. But the biggest exam results conundrum remains unsolved. Parents can only guess how school A, in a run-down part of town, compares with school B, in BMW territory a couple of miles away. B appears to be doing better. But is it? Or does it have less competent teachers but brighter pupils?

Despite Labour promises - before coming to power, to devise tables which would show the progress made by pupils in different schools and not just the raw results - nothing has happened. We still can't tell how much "value" each school is adding to its pupils. Officials at the Department for Education and Employment are working on this but no one is yet ready to promise that even next year's tables will contain the first value-added measures. Schools are getting impatient. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association says there is an urgent need for tables which will be "intrinsically fairer to disadvantaged schools". He adds: "They have been talking about this for years."

But the quest for tables which will be fair to all schools is a tricky and controversial one. Last year, the Government tried to introduce a new "progress measure" but had to withdraw it as schools could demonstrate that it was unfair: many high-achieving schools received low grades simply because it is harder to make much "progress" for those which are already doing extremely well.

The DfEE says that "there is still some way to go" before it is ready to produce value-added tables. It is carrying out research into different ways of producing tables, but it is making no promises about whether it will be possible to change them, even by next year.

Ministers' caution is understandable. While schools can argue that the present tables are manifestly unfair, there will be fewer hiding places for those that do badly under a value-added system. The storm that follows the publication of new tables may make the annual outcry over the current ones look like a local squall. But, in the interests of both parents and schools, the Government will have to grasp the nettle. As Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, told MPs recently, we shall have to take a pragmatic decision and go with the fairest option.

Meanwhile, this year's tables do offer some indication of progress. They show how schools performed at GCSE in 1996 and how they did this summer - the measure used is the proportion of pupils awarded five or more A* to C grades. (The full tables produced by the DfEE also give the figures for 1997 and 1998.) But a dip in one year's results does not mean very much: it may simply show that a particular year group is less able than its predecessors.

Overall, our tables rank schools, as in previous years, according to the percentage of pupils attaining five or more A* to C grades. The national average rose this year from 46.3 to 47.9 per cent.

Another measure of GCSE performance is the "points score" or the average number of points per candidate. GCSE is graded from A* to G and the score is worked out by giving one point for a G and eight for an A*, adding these together and dividing by the number of candidates.

Ministers introduced this indicator as they want schools to concentrate on pupils at the bottom of the heap as well as those who are capable of the top grades. Critics say that it gives an unfair advantage to schools which enter pupils for large numbers of GCSEs - even a G is worth a point. Some head teachers also believe strongly that pupils should not spend all their time taking exams, but should be encouraged to play football and learn the violin, for example.

Another measure designed to focus attention on the least able pupils has been introduced for the first time this year. It shows the proportion of pupils who did not gain a single GCSE pass at any of the grades A* to G. Mr Blunkett has promised to reduce the number leaving without any qualification.

As ever, the tables contain peculiarities: Winchester College, for example, always close to the top of the A-level results table, appears to perform badly at GCSE because many pupils do International GCSEs which are not included.

The column showing A-level results gives the number of points per candidate in the same way as the equivalent column for GCSE. This is a good yardstick for judging comprehensives because it reveals a school's performance once the pupils who are least interested in learning have left.

Even the A-level results column is not all it seems. Many independent schools refuse to take pupils into the sixth form unless they achieve good grades at GCSE, so they have a head start over schools which are open to all comers. Some colleges also insist on minimum grades for entrants. Schools which offer general studies - and many famous independent schools and excellent comprehensives do not - have an advantage because even a low grade in a subject boosts the point score.

At the other end of the scale, truancy figures provide a useful guide to a school's quality. Inspectors use them as one way of telling whether a school is failing, although the battle against absenteeism is obviously much tougher in schools with a high proportion of difficult pupils.

The Government stresses that no single indicator can tell you the true quality of a school and, as the tables stand, even an assiduous study of all the columns leaves huge gaps. Parents will be able to fill in some themselves from their knowledge of the type of areas and pupils which schools serve. But most of those who are choosing a secondary school will want to visit, to talk to the head, to watch the expression on the pupils' faces and to find out whether their local comprehensive has that telling hum of orderly activity which makes for a good school.

THE QUICK POINT BY POINT GUIDE

The tables begin below with the best schools in England ranked by A-level or advanced GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) point score. An A grade at A-level gets 10 points in this system, a B grade eight points, a C, six points and so on. So, for example, A-level pupils at Colchester Royal Grammar School, which heads the state schools table with a 34.6 points, are each getting more than three grade As at A-level.

Just under 48 per cent of young people achieve five or more A* to C grades. A school in a deprived area could still be doing well if below this figure, but a school in an affluent area should be well above it.

One school may look as if it is doing better than another, but the "poorer" school may have better teachers making the most of disadvantaged pupils. The "better" school may have bright pupils who are coasting - producing decent results but capable of more.

A dip in one year's results may only mean a year group is less able than its predecessors.

Exam results reflect history - how the school has been over the last five or seven years. It may be better or worse now.

Beware the GCSE point score. Critics say it gives an unfair advantage to schools that enter pupils for large numbers of GCSEs - even a G is worth a point. Some schools don't see the point of putting pupils through the stress.

Beware the A-level point score. Many independent schools refuse to take pupils into the sixth form unless they achieve good grades at GCSE, so they have a head start over schools open to all-comers. Some colleges also insist on minimum grades for entrants.

Schools which offer general studies - and many famous independent schools and excellent comprehensives do not - have an advantage because even a low grade in a subject boosts the point score.

No one indicator tells you the true quality of a school and, as the tables stand, there are gaps.

Parents will be able to fill in some of the gaps from their knowledge of the areas and pupils schools serve. Most who are choosing a secondary school will want to visit, talk to the head, watch the pupils, and discover if their local comprehensive has that telling hum of orderly activity which makes a good school.

The performance tables are also available on The Independent's web site at www.independent.co.uk

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