Secondary schools to face new league table pressure

Ministers will publish separate league tables of national curriculum test results for 600,000 14-year-olds for the first time later this year. The decision is part of an attempt by ministers to turn up the heat on the country's 3,500 secondary schools so that they improve their performance in the tests.

Tony Blair has been alarmed by research which showed that thousands of pupils slipped back in the "three Rs" during their first years in secondary school. Ministers also want to increase the profile of the tests now that more young people are choosing between an academic or vocational education route at the age of 14.

However, headteachers' leaders claim that the move shows the Government is obsessed with the "three Ts" of targets, testing and tables at a time when most parents want exam pressures on their children reduced. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The key stage three tests [for 14-year-olds] are merely a staging post for the more important GCSE and A-level examinations.

"I reject the philosophy underlying the imposition of these retrograde tables which will not tell parents anything that they do not know already. In schools that are doing well, the publication of the results will have no effect. In schools that are serving disadvantaged areas, it will be yet another pressure put upon them."

However, a spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It is a critical stage in pupils' education and has a bearing on their GCSE results. This decision reflects their importance to schools."

But headteachers' leaders argue that, rather than increasing the number of league tables, ministers should be abolishing them. They say that because growing numbers of youngsters are splitting their learning time between institions ­ for example, a school and a college ­ the tables are meaningless as it is impossible to show which institution is responsible for a pupils' overall performance.

Mr Blair highlighted the early years of secondary education as the most important area for improvement in standards during his second term in government. That followed research showing as many as one in three children in some schools sliding back in maths and English during their first year in secondary school.

For some years, ministers have been anxious about the lack of improvement in test results for 14-year-olds. While there was an undoubted improvement in tests results for 11-year-olds in Labour's earlier years, the results for 14-year-olds stagnated. This year's results show those reaching the required standard in maths has risen by three percentage points to 70, while English and science have gone up 1 per cent to 68. However, academics say this is not enough to help ministers reach their first target of 75 per cent for 14-year-olds in English and maths next year.

The target rises to 85 per cent by 2007 ­ also considered by experts as unlikely to be achieved. The drive to put more focus on the tests' results (the tables to be published in December will highlight the most improved schools in the country and come out before GCSE and A-level league tables in January) coincides with plans for a major shake-up of secondary education.

The Government is relaxing national curriculum requirements for 14 to 16-year-olds to allow them to drop some subjects ­ such as modern languages ­ and spend up to two days a week on work experience or further education college courses if they are considered unsuited to more academic courses.

The inquiry by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector, into secondary education ­ which will be published next year ­ is also expected to recommend that more youngsters chose between a "general" (academic) and a "specialist" (vocational) route through education at 14.