In a league of their own

29th November 1996 at 00:00
There is a different approach to examination tables north and south of the border, and it leads to a paradox. In England and Wales there is much comment on overall standards. This year the Government has professed satisfaction at the continuing rise, although progress has in fact slowed down. The Scottish figures, wreathed with their usual Government "health warning", do not offer a changing overall picture. Leaving aside rises and falls that can be attributed to small numbers and statistical blips, the pattern is one of stability.

From this contrast comes the paradox. South of the border the intention is for the tables to put high-achieving schools in the spotlight and encourage others to do better. In other words, the notion of "league tables" is not discouraged. The Scottish tables, we are repeatedly told, should not be read in that way. Raw figures can be misleading, reflecting the social composition of the pupil roll more than the efforts of the school.

Even Scottish Office ministers acknowledge that the Government would like to build in the concept of "value added" if only it could be confident of the methodology. Yet because overall standards are more or less static, attention inevitably focuses on individual schools. The size of Scotland, with only 450 secondaries compared with 4,000 in the south, also makes for comparisons, however invidious.

Whether a school is advantaged or disadvantaged in its composition, it wants to improve its performance. Headteachers and their staff carefully monitor each year's statistics, and they are able to do so department by department whereas the public sees only whole-school results. Leaving aside the political rhetoric about the meaning of the published tables, the question is whether their existence is a spur.

Would schools that have made a special effort to raise their Standard grade performance have done so without the tables?

A new dimension this year is the grouping of schools under the new local authorities. East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire are the star performers. In commuter land there are high-performing institutions without many others pulling down overall standards - which is the problem in each of the cities. The funding statistics to be published later will of course show that money follows disadvantage, not superficial success.

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