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The best index so far

It was to be expected that risers in the "alternative league tables" of exam results would cheer and "fallers" would complain. However, we have been impressed by the many reflective, analytical and balanced comments and enquiries we have received from rectors of high schools.

The free school meals (FSM) indicator does reflect uptake of free meals rather than entitlement, but attempts to explain away uncomfortable findings are often contradictory. For example, it was simultaneously suggested in The TES Scotland that the FSM rates reflect low take-up in rural areas and low take-up in areas where easy lunch alternatives are available (presumably more likely to be urban).

It seems likely that FSM is not a very reliable index, but speculation about quite how it might be unreliable is not illuminating without appropriate evidence. Also, it is the best index of school disadvantage currently available, so it would be helpful to consider what other index might be better.

The formula used does produce some mathematical anomalies in the small proportion of schools with FSM below 5 per cent and in schools with a zero pass rate. Data were not available for some schools.

Of course, schools have many objectives beyond crude examination pass rates. Some of these outcomes are difficult to measure and perhaps impossible to measure. However, examination pass rates are highly salient to pupils and parents. All outcomes should be interpreted in the context of the socio-economic status of a school's enrolment, not the only factor in a school's performance but the largest factor.

Parental support is also important irrespective of socio-economic disadvantage and parental educational level, but we have no national measure of this - or of other relevant factors. Scotland is still a long way from the sophistication of the multi-level, value-added systems in the United States.

The Executive's parentzone school information site is a most welcome development, and encourages schools to showcase their strengths in whatever way they wish (including the views of pupils and parents). It includes FSM for each school, but schools may wish to further interpret this crude index in the light of local knowledge (without drifting into unsubstantiated speculation).

The main value of the "alternative tables" is to highlight the outstanding performance of a substantial number of secondary schools in Scotland, in many cases under difficult socio-economic circumstances. There are also several examples of schools with more advantaged pupils who performed beyond expectations.

All these schools are worthy of more detailed study. They are clearly doing something well. We all need to know how.

Keith Topping Professor of Education and Social Research University of Dundee

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