School tables: Comment by Richard Garner, Education Editor

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The Independent Online

It almost goes without saying that the 2009 secondary school exam league tables are more comprehensive than ever before.

The biggest change in comparison with 2008 is that schools for the first time are being rated on their performance in modern foreign languages following the outcry that followed the slump in take-up of the subject at GCSE.

A column we have highlighted in our coverage today shows the percentage of youngsters obtaining A* to C grade passes in at least one modern foreign language in last summer’s GCSEs.

There is another column in the tables that shows the percentage gaining any kind of qualification in the subject at that level.

The decision to include the languages ranking is a reflection of the Government’s desire to put pressure on schools to end the fall in the take-up of French and German at GCSE – and it appears that their hopes may have been realised.

Only lastmonth CILT (the Centre for Information on Language Teaching) produced figures which showed that the slide – which has seen take-up halved in a decade – had begun to bottom out.

Whether it is as a result of the pressure from the performance tables or because the fall-out from the decision to make the subject voluntary for 14- to 16-yearolds had finallyworked its way through the system is debatable.

The new measure will highlight the class divide in the take-up of languages, with most independent schools still insisting they should be compulsory at GCSE subject, and the majority of comprehensives abandoning that idea.

The only other change in this year’s tables concerns absence figures. The Government has abolished the distinction between authorised and unauthorised absence rates, giving an overall absence figure and the percentage of youngsters who are considered to be persistent absentees (in other words, 48 or more half-day sessions a year).

Of course, this may reflect the worry of ministers that some schools were covering up the true absence figures by including some in the authorised absence column. It also reflects the Government’s desire to try to stop schools allowing parents to take their children on holiday during termtime – and including these as unauthorised figures.

Otherwise, the tables are much the same as last year. The main measure by which schools are ranked is the percentage of pupils gaining A* to C grade passes at GCSE, including maths and English.

This was introduced two years ago for the first time to ensure schools concentrate on performance in the three Rs rather than boost their ranking by putting more pupils in for vocational qualifications, deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE passes.

The value-added measure looks at what each child arriving at secondary school at age 11 could be expected to achieve in their GCSEs – and measures that against their actual performance. A point score of 1,000 means all the pupils at the school have – on average – achieved exactly what was expected of them.

A score of 1,006 means that – on average – each pupil has obtained one GCSE grade higher than expected. Likewise, a score of 994 would mean they have achieved a score on average one grade lower than could have expected. The argument, of course, still rages over whether the Government should produce league tables of school performance.

Ministers argue that they are simply producing raw data, and it is the media that compiles league tables. This seems a little disingenuous. After all, if ministers were on the side of opponents of league tables, they could do as they do in Wales.

There, parents have a right to the information on schools that they are considering, but there is no national publication of information. Whatever happens though, it is very unlikely that the clock will be turned back to the days where parents were left in the dark about the performance of schools.

* Selective schools: how they performed at A-level
* The Top Comprehensive Schools at A-level
* The Top 50 Independent Schools at A-level
* English sixth-form college league tables