Leading Article: Adding educational value is a long and arduous game

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Could do better. The only educational policy worth the name is one that strives for all-round improvement, in attendance records, exam results, skills acquisition, and pupils' attitudes. Improvement is happening - praise where it is due to the heads, teachers, parents and pupils making the effort. But on the evidence of today's spread of data it is far too patchy.

These latest "league tables" are, or ought to be, a map for education's general staff. The military metaphor is apt; if not national survival then national prosperity, let alone social equanimity, depend on continuing improvement, especially in the lower divisions. It's going to be a long march, too. If consistent improvement in exam results over the past three years is a fair test, then what we learn today is how few schools are on the upward curve. An improvement ratio of 5 per cent is not good enough - even if these tables are distorted by including those schools (mainly in the private sector) which are pretty much incapable of betterment.

Do the improving schools offer lessons for the rest? Among them the City Technology Colleges and the grant-maintained schools figure prominently. It would be churlish to deny that these Conservative innovations have been good for their parents and pupils, but equally it would be naive not to ask some searching questions about the policy of preference which has underpinned them. Material resources are part of their story. A new school is a solid basis for improvement. That pretty much sums up most CTCs, as they started life in the early 1990s. Grant-maintained schools in their early years enjoyed, generally speaking, favourable allocations.

The difficulty is stripping out of this evidence the effect of schools' selection policies, however covert. Schools that select ought to score high on attainment tests. The London Oratory, to name a famous name, clearly chooses its pupils on the basis of aspiration and (parental) attitude if not formally on test scores. If it and grant-maintained schools like it had become more selective in the past, that might explain higher attainment at 16- and 18-plus.

The key question behind all such educational data is whether a school is "adding value". Selectivity itself ought to be irrelevant to general measures of improvement, unless other schools are forced to enroll higher concentrations of children from the middle and lower ability bands. Educational progress rests on more schools doing better with unpromising material - using that phrase not in some sniffy sense, but as an accurate summation of the multiple barriers to learning among certain classes of pupils.

Only by raising performance among the ranks of children of mediocre ability will we raise the overall level of our educational standing. Bluntly, in the high skill working environment of the future, that is the only way those individuals are going to have any real prospect of prosperity and security. And it is prosperity and security that young people themselves mostly aspire to, according to the survey we are publishing this week, sponsored by the Industrial Society.

The most exciting findings of these tables come from Sheffield, Salford and Tower Hamlets in London from schools with unpromising catchments which are pushing up their results year by year. It is there that lessons are to be learnt. No school should ever be condemned to "sink" status, and the first task is identification. This map leaves Labour in no doubt about where policies to combat under-performance need to be focused. (A word or two of praise from Labour ministers for their Conservative predecessors for making this data possible would not go amiss, either.)

Take the tables on truancy. They make depressing reading. Truancy and social exclusion are close relations. Here is evidence that, for example, the City of Kingston-upon-Hull and Nottingham are failing to educate far too high a proportion of their young people. Is it a coincidence that the local authorities in those areas have recently taken over administration of schools from county councils? The centre does not only have to ask what the relevant councils are doing about non-attendance, but to collaborate in the task of getting children back, and cajole those who do not respond quickly enough.

Ministers know that, in the end, they cannot run schools from the centre. Making public examples of the heads of failing schools, while salutary, is only a last resort. The real business is done by building up an effective teaching team, bringing parents in, constructing an ethos of attainment, providing the kind of support that enables long-term improvement.

The people who can really change the system are already in it: teachers, and their head teachers. We must hope that they have collectively accepted the value of the kind of indicators published today, recognising, of course, that they are only one set of indicators among many. These lessons are not to be dismissed - they must be acted on, above all at school level.