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No such thing as a free lunch?

Colin Alston suggests a way of making performance tables more meaningful

If you ever want to know how many children in your local authority took sandwiches to school for their lunch in January 1995, the Department for Education and Employment can tell you. It's all there in the annual Statistics of Education report. Very useful.

It is odd that the department's annual statistics report is silent about another useful statistic - the percentages of children eligible for free school meals. Eligibility for free meals is generally acknowledged to be associated with lower levels of educational achievement. The DFEE itself accepts the use of FSM data to identify the additional educational needs of schools when approving local management schemes. But when it comes to the annual secondary school performance tables there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The DFEE has at its fingertips the GCSE results and free meals data for every maintained secondary school in the country. Viable performance bands and performance standards could therefore be created by bringing these two important data sets together. Now that would be a league table to conjure with.

While local education authorities are ranked on their results, there is no parallel ranking in terms of their relative poverty or socio-economic disadvantage. This is a pity. Because the measure of fit between LEAs' GCSE results and their levels of disadvantages is quite stunning (see table).

The "Top 10" LEAs had average FSM levels of just 10 per cent, while the so-called "Worst 10" averaged 51 per cent on the FSM indicator.

Of the "bottom" 40 LEAs on the five or more A-C GCSEs measure, every single one had above-average FSM figures. Of the "Top 25" LEAs on GCSE results not one had above-average levels of FSM.

Hackney, with 66 per cent eligibility, is invariably near the bottom of the league tables. In the GCSE cohorts in Hackney schools in 1995, FSM eligibility ranged from 26 to 92 per cent. However, in one-third of the schools, more than 35 per cent of pupils achieved five or more A-C grades. At a stroke, the DFEE's publication of benchmarks for FSM figures and exam results would put a new perspective on "failure" stories.

Nevertheless, it is not self-interest but a desire to make the league table figures meaningful that has driven me to write this article. Within education generally, poverty, disadvantage, socio-economic background and social class have become very difficult things to discuss. Research findings which 10 years ago assisted the interpretation of examination results are now seen as unacceptable excuses which denote low expectations.

For some people, poverty is not allowed to exist - much less help to explain lower levels of performance. For others, a commitment to equal access to learning opportunities rests uneasily with the certain knowledge that children's school achievements will always be deeply affected by home and social circumstances, for good or ill.

Why can't we make more positive use of what we know? We have learned that poverty combines with other disadvantages and compounds them. Although there is a need for higher expectations of children, we know there is not a nationwide conspiracy of teachers, somehow seeking out the disadvantaged and giving them less than their due. Perhaps, above all, we know that some disadvantaged pupils and schools achieve great things, despite odds stacked against them.

It would be possible for the DFEE to play a pivotal role in helping schools and LEAs to combat the negative effects of social and economic deprivation by giving us better measures of schools' relative success or failure. Headteachers would make use of the comparative information for realistic target-setting. It would help governors and parents to make sounder judgments about a school's strengths or weaknesses. It would give Office for Standards in Education inspectors a more valid basis for assessing the performance of disadvantaged schools. It would enable LEAs to better fulfil their role in monitoring achievement and raising standards.

Schools and LEAs clearly need to set themselves challenging targets. They also need much more precise ways of focusing their aim. With more detailed school background and performance data, questions relating to disadvantage, gender and achievement could be explored on a national scale.

Is there a measurable difference between the average GCSE achievements of schools where 10 per cent of pupils are eligible for free meals, as against those schools with 15 per cent? Are there regional differences in the extent to which disadvantage affects exam results? What is achieved in boys' schools where 40 per cent are eligible for FSM, compared with those where eligibility is 60 per cent or 80 per cent? How different are levels of achievement in boys' and girls' schools with very low levels of disadvantage? Are these gender differences greater or smaller than in the most deprived schools?

If there was a national picture of exactly who is achieving what, we could set more rigorous improvement targets. Now is the time for the DFEE to make public the performance-indicator data which it already holds so we can start working on meaningful targets.

Colin Alston is head of policy, research and statistics for the London borough of Hackney

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