Heads say poorer pupil:teacher ratios mean standards cannot be sustained. The examination league tables provide little evidence to allay concern that they are forcing schools to concentrate on high achievers at the expense of the less able. Nor do they confirm that trend.
The proportion of 15-year-olds leaving without a single GCSE is marginally lower than in 1995. Last year, 8.1 per cent of pupils failed to gain a single GCSE compared with 7.9 per cent in this week's tables. The latest figure is slightly worse than the 7.7 per cent in 1994.
However, the headteachers' union, the Secondary Heads Association, is warning that the improvement in results at GCSE and A-level may not be sustained in future because of budget cuts.
Peter Miller, the association's president, predicted there could be schools where pupils do not get a full week's teaching. "There has only been a slight improvement in results, but that is a miracle considering the worsening of pupil-teacher ratios," he said. "The pressure on budgets will make the position even more difficult next year."
Overall, 44.5 per cent of pupils achieved five or more higher grade GCSEs, compared with an equivalent last year of 43.4 per cent. The National Consortium for Examination Results (NCER), which collates figures for local authority schools, suggests that without the results from the independent sector, the national average would be just below 40 per cent.
At A-level, the average scores for candidates taking two or more subjects has increased from 17.5 last year to 18.3. This may reflect the fact that more schools are entering weaker pupils for General National Vocational Qualifications.
The ranking of the best performing comprehensives has changed only slightly over the last two years. At the Liverpool Blue Coat school, where interviews are part of the admission process, 97 per cent of 15-year-olds achieved five or more GCSEs grades A* to C. Many of the high performers are grant-maintained schools, often girls schools. Research by the NCER indicates that girls are now outperforming boys in most subjects.
The rank order of local authorities on the basis of examination results is similar to other years. The best were achieved by the Isles of Scilly, which has only one secondary school. The other high achievers are small outer London boroughs with relatively affluent populations.
At the other end of scale are small inner London boroughs. Islington remains bottom of the league, though its proportion of pupils achieving five or more higher grade GCSEs has improved since last year from 17.4 per cent to 22. 4 per cent. The large urban local authorites with the poorest results are Sandwell (26.5 per cent compared with 26.9 per cent in 1995); Manchester (27 per cent compared with 22.5 per cent in 1995) and Liverpool (27.6 per cent compared with 26.1 per cent in 1995).
For the most part, the same local authorities have the largest proportion of children leaving without any GCSE. In the Liverpool overspill borough of Knowsley, 19.5 per cent leave with nothing; the figure for Middlesbrough and Manchester is 16.3 per cent.
However, the ranking on A-level scores produces a different list: Manchester tops the league with a point score of 23.4. Other high performers are the City of York, North Yorkshire and Trafford (which has retained grammar schools).
The figures on absence, which are probably less reliable than other tables, suggest a marginal increase in both sanctioned and unsanctioned absence from school. The national average for authorised absence is 8.2 per cent of half day sessions, compared with a figure of 1.1 per cent for truanting.
Devon County Council has attacked press reports about one of its schools, Parkside, where no pupil achieved five or more higher grade GCSEs, although 77 per cent gained at least one pass.
The chief education officer, Simon Jenkins, said: "I should make it very clear that Parkside is an improving school in which I have every confidence. Only two years ago the school was subjected to a rigorous OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) inspection, which commented that 'Parkside provides an education of good quality'... 'that the quality of teaching is generally good and, in some cases, very good' and that 'standards of achievement are rising'.
The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, said the results demonstrated that the publication of league tables led to higher standards in schools. The information, she said, provides an impetus for excellent schools and colleges to do better and a spur to those below average to set targets for improvement and galvanise poor performers into action.
However, Labour pointed out the results show schools are far from reaching the national target of 55 per cent of pupils gaining five or more GCSEs grades A to C.