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Blind dates;Talkback

Some primaries are cheating at their assessment tests. But with so much at stake, can we blame them, asks Steve Devrell?

So the league tables for the 1997-98 season have appeared again, representing the Government's subtle and simplistic attempt at creating a selection process for primary education. But rather than create useful guidelines, these tables provide nothing more than a "blind date" for parents in their search for a competent junior school.

At best the "contestants" are asked three questions about maths, English and science. Each gives an easily fiddled response shown as percentages. These represent children who receive the expected level four or above. From the answers, represented in those conveniently misleading league tables, parents can make judgments on which school they would like their child to attend.

You would think that such fragile information would be enough to cause universal opposition among headteachers. Not so. Many have been taken over by "SAT Fright Fever" and now place unworthy emphasis on this tiny and misleading fragment of primary education.

But it is not all the heads' fault. The Government is using this barometer to influence a school's popularity. I am certain that the clamour for high positions has caused many schools to abuse their impartiality. There is far too much to lose; the practice of giving unfair guidance before and during the test is as understandable as it is despicable.

I know of schools which open their test papers when they first arrive and I know of schools whose pre-test revision is remarkably similar to the test questions. In short: I know that some schools cheat.

But who can blame them with so much riding on the results. Is it cheating though, or just a way of securing the future of their school? Is it "working the system" or just a commendable way of saving jobs and reputations?

If parents take away their children from schools that perform poorly in national assessment tests, the schools' future is at risk - a high price to pay for letting the tests go ahead without trying to influence results.

If the Government still maintains that assessment tests are worthwhile, then it will have to make sure they are fair. Papers must be delivered to schools and then guarded until the test; administration must be carried out independently; test papers must be despatched to the independent marker without schools seeing them.

This would add millions to the already ridiculous assessment tests' budget and would still only succeed in giving an inadequate indication of a school's performance. There is so much more to education than three dubious percentages, yet Labour appears intent on using these statistics as the yardstick for achievement.

Parents should look further than assessment test results - there is little to gain from blind date education.

Steve Devrell teaches in a primary in Solihull, West Midlands

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