TONY BLAIR's 10-year record on education was today called into question by one of Britain's leading schools commentators.
Alan Smithers, of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said it was not clear how far standards had been raised under New Labour. He urged ministers to set up an independent body to judge educational performance as they could not be trusted to oversee the measurement process themselves.
The findings come in an evaluation by Professor Smithers for the Sutton Trust charity, which funds educational projects for able children from less privileged backgrounds. It charts the Government's success in raising test and exam results by documenting the improvements in official figures since 1997.
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "There has been a raising of standards, but I do not think the summation of schools' test scores gives reliable evidence of the extent of that."
Some of the domestic results increase was down to increased teaching to the test, he said.
Between 1997 and 2006, key stage 2 results in English and maths rose from 63 and 62 per cent of pupils achieving the expected level, to 79 and 76 per cent respectively. Results at KS3, GCSE and A-level have also surged.
But Professor Smithers said England's record in international tests in the same period was patchier. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) showed England's primary pupils registered among the biggest improvements in the subjects between 1995 and 2003. In English, the 2001 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) showed England's primary pupils were the third top performers.
Among secondary pupils, Timss tests for 14-year-olds and the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests for 15-year-olds showed progress stalling. In the Pisa maths tests, England's pupils slipped from 9th to 16th place between 2000 and 2003.
Professor Smithers wrote: "Our overall assessment of the impact of Blair's 10 years in office is, tentatively, that some progress has been made during the decade.
"However, this assessment is inconclusive, as it is hard to say with any certainty what the extent of any progress has been."
Improving test scores could reflect increased teaching to the test, he said, suggesting statistical improvements might be "skin deep". In addition, national improvements in GCSE results had come about partly through schools entering pupils for GNVQs, each equivalent to four GCSEs, to raise their league table position.
The danger was that politicians publicly committed to improving test scores could not afford to conduct an honest evaluation of their policies, the report said.
The Government had been keen to play down the latest Pisa study, in 2003, ruling England's performance unofficial because a low proportion of schools agreed to take part. But other international studies with patchy participation had been promoted when their findings were more favourable to ministers, Professor Smithers said.
He called for a Bank of England-style independent body to monitor standards, possibly by testing a nationally representative sample of pupils each year, in addition to key stage tests.
Professor Smithers also cited evidence from Pisa showing that UK private schools were the second-highest performers internationally, behind Korea.
This might be caused by their freedom from government interference, he said, which allowed them to focus on providing a rounded education rather than endlessly pursuing better test and exam scores.
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said the report showed that standards have been raised. He said there is no need for an independent body to compare standards internationally as the OECD already did it.
Rote learning hurt maths, page 18
Key Stage 2 (percentage achieving level 4)
English 1997: 63; 2006: 79
Maths 1997: 62; 2006: 76
GCSE (percentage achieving five or more A*-C grades)
1997: 45; 2006: 59
A-level (percentage achieving As)
1997: 16; 2006: 24
(scores for England)
TIMSS, Year 9 maths
1995: 506; 1999: 496; 2003: 498
PISA, for 15-year-olds
2000: 523; 2003: 506
2000: 529; 2003: 507
Source: 'Blair's Education: an International Perspective' (Sutton Trust)