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Free meal pickings;Leading Article

NO ONE would suggest our reworking of this year's local authority test results according to the incidence of free school meals (pages 8 amp; 9) is the last word in scientific analysis. But it does highlight wide differences in achievements between apparently similar education authorities.

The general trend, not surprisingly, suggests high deprivation is associated with low attainment. But why at key stage 2 do children in authorities like Kensington, Westminster and Camden, with some of the highest levels of family poverty, score above the national average and at least 12 per cent better than those in urban authorities with fewer children in official poverty like Newham, Nottingham and Southwark? And with the government focus soon to swing onto key stage 3, why do areas like South Gloucestershire, with half the average for free school meals for secondary pupils, score below the national average?

When Trafford children score 20 per cent better than apparently more affluent Portsmouth at key stage 3, is it because of something those authorities do or do not do? Or is it an indication that entitlement to a free lunch is not the only difference that matters: that factors such as family stability, whether or not English is spoken at home, the settlement patterns of refugees or the creaming off of high attainers to schools in neighbouring authorities also need to be allowed for?

New unitary authorities feature regularly in the low attaining councils - though there are honourable exceptions. Are these pockets of deep-seated urban neglect previously hidden within the rural hinterlands of larger authorities? Creations too small to break out of a cycle of deprivation? Or held back by parochial (usually old Labour) politics?

These are all questions our tables pose rather than answer. Some of them raise fundamental issues about local authority efficacy upon which the whole future of local government could turn, given the Government's determination to improve public services. So far the Office for Standards in Education's hit-and-run inspection regime throws little light on these questions either. Instead it leaves us with others such as why Newham, which got such an outstanding OFSTED accolade, continues to feature as one of the poorest achievers compared with similar authorities, while Calderdale, which according to the inspectors deserved a stinging rebuke, is one of the few above-average scorers with above-average free school meals?

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