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Ministers in retreat after table rebellion

The Government seems set to bow to public and media pressure and resume responsibility for publishing national league tables for English primary schools.

The move follows the publication in national newspapers this week of last year's key stage test results for 11-year-olds, compiled by the Press Association.

The news agency stepped in after the Government appeared to have dropped plans to publish the results nationally, making local authorities responsible for publishing them locally instead. A spokesman said: "What possible interest can a parent in Penzance have in key stage 2 results in Newcastle?"

The appearance of the unofficial "bootleg" version, produced in response to intense lobbying from Fleet Street, has increased pressure on ministers to co-ordinate the results to ensure that comparisons are fair and accurate.

Some education authorities have complained that a league table of test averages gave a "misleading" picture because it is calculated on a different basis to statistics produced in the Department for Education and Employment figures last year.

For one authority, Northampton shire, the difference between the two methods gives an average boost of 4 percentage points compared with the method favoured by the DFEE - equivalent to 30 places in the ranking order.

A senior Government source admitted this week that there had been "teething troubles", caused by ministers' decision to try and speed up the publication. But the result was that they had been published two months earlier than last year.

Results for all education authorities are now expected to be available on the DFEE's Internet Web site within two weeks, followed by publication of the department's own rankings of authority averages.

Ministers are planning to publish results for the 1998 primary tests in November to help parents who are in the process of choosing schools.

But, after editors reported huge public interest in the tables, the Government is to explore ways of speeding up publication on its Web site and of providing results to national news organisations.

Eleven-year-olds are doing much better, though debate continues to rage over why. Politicians insist that the league tables raise standards, while unions and headteachers continue to believe otherwise. National averages rose in all three subjects compared with 1996, with the proportion achieving the expected level in English rising to 63per cent (58 in 1996), maths 62 per cent (54) and science 69 per cent (62).

Stephen Dorrell, the Tories' education spokesman, said the rise in standards proved his party's decision to introduce primary league tables last year was "bearing fruit".

Estelle Morris, the education minister, claimed such tables were essential to monitoring progress and setting targets. "Performance tables are important in our drive to raise standards," she said. "In addition, parents find them hugely valuable in informing their decisions about their children's future, and their chosen primary school. "

But teaching unions accused ministers of hyping up the tables' importance.David Hart of the National Association of Headteachers said: "I don't believe performance tables make as much difference as politicians pretend. Primary schools can improve enormously from one year to the next because teachers are professionally motivated to improving standards. They don't need any tables."

Many authorities saw the chance to publish their results as a marketing tool. Hartlepool, the biggest improver between 1996 and 1997, produced a brochure with a two-page pen-portrait of every school.

Jeremy Fitt, director of education, said: "We thought, right, we've got to do this anyway, but how can we use it to be really creative and imaginative? It's been a great morale booster - a brochure which shouts 'Hartlepool schools matter'."

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