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Out in a league of her own

I wish Gillian Shephard would stop doing sensible things. It has been so long since we had a Secretary of State for whom one could feel much respect, let alone sympathy, that I have forgotten how it feels and I'm not sure I like it. It doesn't seem natural.

Sympathy? I can hear the sneers already. Well, yes, sympathy, because I suspect that some of her most carefully constructed compromises will end in tears. Take, for example, the recent initiative over league tables. Unlike most of her predecessors, she has accepted that there is a connection between social deprivation and educational achievement.

It's not a difficult concept to handle, but it was clearly beyond the rest of them. Part of the reason why they resisted for so long was because they couldn't face admitting what everybody knew that the league tables were fairly meaningless. They had neither the honesty nor the courage to respond to what the profession was saying and accept the value-added argument.

What she is about to discover, I fear, is that teachers can be every bit as capricious and unreasonable as the Government. If she thinks that value-added tables are going to be embraced with enthusiasm, I think she is kidding herself. Yes, they are what everybody has been calling for. Yes, they are the logical solution. But it is a long time since that counted for much in education. Her predecessors made sure of that.

It won't be long before schools start to realise that the only thing worse than league tables which don't give you the answer is league tables which do. If you're worried about coming bottom of a league table calculated on the basis of raw scores, can you imagine what it is going to feel like at the bottom of a value-added table?

Perhaps the only hope for Gillian Shephard is that in trying to produce tables which are fair, which compare like with like, the DFE will make as big a mess of it as they did when dealing with attendance.

Nobody takes any notice of the attendance tables, not even, it would seem, the Government's own inspectors, who have a different system for gathering statistics and employ a different benchmark when deciding if a school has got a problem. I have yet to find anybody who understands the official figures or has any idea what they refer to. Who, for example, knows the difference between the number of sessions missed and the number of pupils missing sessions?

If she wants to avoid all the problems associated with a value-added system that works, she might have a look at how other statistics are handled by the Government.

Because of the attendance tables, we all know about the condoned absence. Perhaps she could introduce the notion of the condoned examination result. The tables could report not what pupils actually achieved but what they might have achieved if they had taken full advantage of what the school had to offer. Or maybe, like the unemployment figures, the exam results could be seasonally adjusted.

That could work wonderfully in education. We could have examination league tables to show what the pupils would have achieved if it hadn't been a bad year.

Whatever she does, Gillian Shephard must make sure it doesn't work, otherwise she will be in real trouble. The great thing about raw scores is that we all know they don't mean anything. Show me a parent inquiring about poor exam results and I can give them any number of explanations.

After all, anybody who has ever supported a football team knows perfectly well that their position in the league tells you nothing about how good they really are.

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