Primary league tables published this week show that independent schools have helped mask the failure of the state sector to raise standards between 1997 and 1998 in English and maths.
In the autumn official figures revealed that children were doing slightly better at English at key stage 2 - 65 per cent reached level 4 in 1998 compared to 63 per cent in 1997. Their performance in maths worsened - 59 per cent reaching level 4 compared to 62 per cent in 1997.
However, these figures from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority included independent-school results which the league tables do not. With their scores gone, state schools have still improved at English, but only by 1.6 percentage points (from 63 per cent at level 4 to 64.6). In maths the decline has increased from 3 percentage points to 3.4.
Ministers accept that the results are disappointing, but insist that the national literacy and numeracy strategies will raise standards. In order to reach the national targets, 80 per cent of pupils will have to achieve level 4 by 2002 in English, and 75 per cent in maths.
Schools' performance does vary from one year to the next - something that the Government can take comfort from. Between 1996 and 1997, for example, English results went up 6.2 percentage points and maths up 8.1.
According to the Department for Education and Employment, around a third of schools are doing as well or better at English than in 1996 and 26 per cent as well or better at maths.
However, the results of individual schools are not a reliable guide to changes in standards, particularly those based on a single small class of 11-year-olds.
While the schools with fewer than ten 11-year-olds have been removed from the tables, more than a third will have 30 or fewer children in the final year group. In such schools results are dramatically affected if two or three pupils are absent on the day of the tests.
The second in the DFEE's most improving schools (see below) is Cheetwood county primary in Manchester which has 16 11-year-olds and has almost quadrupled its aggregate score for maths, English and science in one year.
This year 13 of Cheetwood's 11-year-olds reached the expected level in maths, compared with the previous year when two of the 11 pupils taking the test reached the expected level.Overall, only two primary schools have managed to achieve the expected level for all their 11-year-olds for the past three years. They are Shenington CofE primary near Banbury in Oxfordshire and St Michael's Bamford in Heywood, Rochdale.
The results illustrate the scale of the task facing local education authorities in achieving the targets. The national average in English and maths results will have to improve every year by 4 percentage points.
Ministers can point to some authorities that have achieved this. In Tower Hamlets, London, English scores have gone up 5.1 per centage points in 12 months, though the borough remains the third worst performer in the country.
League tables in full, centre pages