Curiouser and curiouser
As usual, there was a flurry of headlines around the publication of the school league tables last month. But this year, there was a difference.
"Deprived schools show big GCSE improvement," reported the Financial Times, while the Daily Mirror went for a more robust "Poor kids lead way in exams". The Daily Mail, never one to trumpet the successes of inner-city comprehensives, ploughed its own furrow with "Worst schools will escape the axe after all".
David Miliband, the school standards minister, spent the day happily announcing that the schools facing the toughest challenges had been among the winners in this year's GCSE league. The proportion of pupils gaining five top grades in these schools had improved by more than double the national rate, he said - 2.8 percentage points, compared with 1.3 per cent nationally.
But keen-eyed observers might have noticed something rather odd about this.
Had the Chief Inspector of Schools, David Bell, not announced just a month earlier that inner-city schools were still struggling despite a welter of government initiatives? The Office for Standards in Education had revisited a report on inner-city schools issued 10 years ago and had found progress "slow and unsteady", he told the Fabian Society. The gap between the exam results of urban secondaries and of the highest-achieving schools had widened rather than narrowed, he added.
"The problem is not solved. Progress in narrowing the achievement gap in education has been slow," he said.
So what is really happening? Are Miliband and Bell completely at odds on this crucial subject? And if they are, who is right? Are inner-city schools racing ahead, or falling further behind?
The picture in the inner-cities, along with that in other deprived areas, might not be quite as grim as it has been painted, it seems. The truth is that the minister and the chief inspector were measuring their schools'
performances in different ways. Mr Bell was looking both at Ofsted judgments on inner-city schools - which have often been critical - and at how these schools' exam results compared with the top schools in the country. Mr Miliband was looking at how his "challenging" schools fared not against the top of the league, but against the middle of it - the national average.
Figures produced by Mr Miliband's department for The TES reveal that in fact both the top and bottom of the league are doing rather well. They compare exam results from 1997 and 2002, and map them against levels of free school meals.
Predictably, the table produced by the Department for Education and Skills shows schools with very few pupils on free school meals had good GCSE results which had continued to improve at a faster-than-average rate. Less predictably, it also shows schools with the very poorest pupils - those with more than 50 per cent on free school meals - had an even more rapid improvement in GCSE results, although they started from a lower base.
The proportion of pupils gaining five or more A*-C grades in these poorest schools went up by seven percentage points in five years, from 28 to 35.
The proportion in the very richest schools - those with less than 5 per cent on free meals - went up by 6 percentage points, from 62 to 68.
So, both top and bottom are doing better than average. But conversely the schools in the middle - with average levels of free meals - are improving only very slowly, gaining three percentage points in five years.
John MacBeath, professor of educational leadership at Cambridge university and an expert on schools in difficult circumstances, is not surprised. The phenomenon of "coasting schools" has long been recognised, he says, and those at the bottom of the heap have recently been under great pressure to raise their game.
"Policies have given so much attention both nationally and at local level to schools at the bottom," he says. "There has been a concerted effort to pull up those schools, while schools at the top have a kind of engine of motivation to improve. There may be schools coasting along which are not subject to intervention."
So much for Mr Miliband's figures. How, then, did Mr Bell reach his conclusion?
He based his remarks on a different set of figures, which did not take into account the level of deprivation - or the lack of it - in the highest-achieving schools. He took a group of urban schools, with very high levels of deprivation, and compared them simply with the schools with the best exam results.
On this measure, it seems, the urban schools were falling behind. According to Ofsted's figures, the GCSE gap between these schools and the high-flying schools had widened slightly over the past decade - by three percentage points.
Further analysis suggests even on his rather particular measure Mr Bell has interpreted the evidence a bit harshly. The gap has widened, but if we take out measures of deprivation altogether from the picture and simply compare the top 5 per cent in the GCSE league with the bottom 5 per cent, the gap is wider still - it has grown by five percentage points.
So, although deprived inner-city schools are not catching up with the front-runners on this "raw score" measure, they are still bucking the trend. Even though their circumstances are the worst in the country, their GCSE performance is not.
To be fair, Mr Miliband's "Schools Facing Challenging Circumstances" have been boosted by large injections of cash over the past few years. The schools Mr Bell was talking about, while almost certainly including many in Mr Miliband's group, may not all have had this extra help. But Ofsted's own research showed its urban schools were doing slightly better than others with the same level of free school meals - 30 per cent of their pupils gained five top GCSE grades, compared with 29 per cent nationally.
The fact remains, though, that these schools still lag far behind the national average. As Mr Bell pointed out, fewer than a third of their pupils get five good GCSEs, compared with more than a half of all pupils nationally.
Professor Alma Harris of Warwick university recently conducted a small-scale study for the DfES, looking at schools in former coalfield areas - which experienced very similar problems to those in the inner-cities. She believes that while schools can make a difference, some will always be battling against the instability of high pupil and staff turnover, along with a host of other factors.
"My personal view - and it is a controversial one - is that there probably is a ceiling beyond which these schools cannot go in terms of attainment unless these other factors change," she says. "We know heads and teachers in these schools are working very, very hard just to stand still."