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Editorial: The tables turn

Could it be that we are learning to love league tables? This year, the Government decided not to publish the figures for English primary schools at the national level - but then the Press Association and the newspapers did it anyway.

Although there was a perfectly good argument for treating the key stage 2 results for individual schools as purely local information - and many councils did a good job in publishing them in a lively and accessible format - there turned out to be intense national interest. The media were not going to be cheated out of their annual newsfest of success and failure. So, having sweated blood in its efforts to raise education high up the national agenda, the Government found to its surprise that it has succeeded.

Bowing to the inevitable, the Department for Education and Employment has agreed to publish the data on the Internet several weeks earlier than planned; and it looks as if next year's key stage 2 results will be handled rather differently, especially since the "bootleg" league table of local education authorities is not comparable with last year's figures, and would probably look rather different had it been calculated by the DFEE's statisticians.

League tables, benchmarks, targets - the language of education has changed out of all recognition over the past decade. And a hard and painful change it has been for many, causing a great deal of heart-searching, and overturning many cherished beliefs and practices about children's learning.

But what is becoming increasingly clear is that poor results in some schools, however devastating they may have been at the time, have stimulated both teachers and children into impressive improvements - often involving the parents as well. No one wants to say out loud that maybe the league tables have had a positive effect, but it is tempting to ask what else could have achieved such marked rises in performance.

Self-help books tell us that what we prioritise, consciously or unconsciously, shapes the nature of our achievement. Tests, league tables and the rest are now focusing the whole system on certain key skills which we want all children to have. David Blunkett is right to say that English and maths are the building blocks of progress. Authoritarian this may seem,but it is also, paradoxically, a liberating approach: it simply won't accept that socio-economic factors can be allowed to dictate a child's educational success.

Of course poverty-stricken children are harder to teach; they may be hungry, abused, or poorly prepared for school. But this does not mean they cannot learn just as well as anyone else, and the Government is right to refuse to let up on this theme.

Countries such as Japan, although more conformist than Britain in many ways, are less determinist when it comes to education. Neither social background nor - more controversially - lack of intellectual "ability" are seen as excuses for under-achievement. Of course, there is a downside to this philosophy ; some children are put under intolerable pressure, and the Japanese Government is now anxious that the whole society is not creative enough.

But it is evident from the British press coverage this week, that when primary teachers in low-achieving schools have clearly focused their efforts on raising standards, over and over again they have expressed delight and astonishment at what their pupils can do. Cripplingly low expectations of working-class children - and, latterly, of ethnic minorities - has always been the besetting sin of British schools. Now, at last, it looks as if we may have found a way out.

The crucial issue is to build on these achievements without losing the breadth, imagination and essentially humane approach of the classic British primary school. We are beginning to realise how important structure is in enabling children to get a grip on their learning. Exploration in the very early years needs to be just as well-organised as the more formal learning later on. The key to it all is clarity and focus - of expectations and approach. We all need to know what we are doing, and why. And so do children.

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