Secondary School League Tables: Richard Garner, Education editor

This year's secondary schools' results may look good, but the forecast is bleak for 2007
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The Independent Online

For the first time in many a long day Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is entitled to wear a smile on her face with the publication of this year's secondary schools' exams league table.

The results show a modest, across-the-board improvement in all measures - particularly in the percentage of youngsters obtaining five top grade A* to C grade passes at GCSE.

The figures show this is now achieved by 57.1 per cent of youngsters - which means ministers are on target to meet the Treasury's target of getting 60 per cent to this landmark by 2008.

(The Treasury had called for an increase of two per cent per year in the number of youngsters clearing this hurdle. At the current rate of progress, the figure would therefore be just above 61 per cent by then.)

Before there is too much euphoria, though, storm clouds could soon be lurking on the horizon.

This year's tables are the lull before the storm - next year for the first time the tables will focus on performance in maths and English with schools being forced to reveal the percentage of youngsters obtaining five top-grade GCSE passes including these subjects.

The results of a pilot carried out this year will be published later this morning - and the indications are that the figures will reduce once maths and English become a compulsory subject.

Last year The Independent disclosed how nine out of 10 of the schools on the most improved list had got there by opting to put more pupils in for vocational qualifications (GNVQs are deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE passes) and ignoring traditional subjects such as maths and English.

Ministers are publishing the new measure in an attempt to get schools to focus on improving standards in the basics. However, it does not take a genius to work out that - if the new figures do show a slide in the numbers obtaining five top grade passes - it will at the very least put a dampener on ministers' claims of ever-rising standards in schools.

It may be unfortunate (as the decision to give GNVQs an equivalent ranking to four GCSEs was taken under the previous Conservative administration) but that is life and it is perhaps an issue ministers should have tackled if they were going to make so much capital out of year-on-year improvements in performance.

Meanwhile, there is some good news for the country's Muslim schools - who are queuing up in their attempt to take advantage of the Government's proposal in its schools' White Paper to allow independent schools to opt into the state sector.

Three of the top 10 schools in the list of those who have done most to improve their pupils' performance since enrolling are independent Muslim schools.

The Association of Muslim Schools has already drawn up a shortlist of the 20 of its member schools judged most likely to meet the criteria to "opt in". Idris Mears, director of the Association of Muslim Schools, said: "There is a great imbalance in the number of state-funded schools between the Muslim faith and other schools. With Christian schools the majority are voluntary aided. Among Jewish schools over half are state-funded, and the Sikhs have three state-funded schools and I do not know of any private schools."

Only five Muslim schools out of 140 are so far funded by the state.

Today's performance tables should help strengthen their case to improve that ratio.