League table time again, though for once it is not just schools called to account this week. The results of the Third International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) show Britain slipping even further behind in the intercontinental performance tables - despite years of unprecedented government intervention in everything from funding, management and inspection to the content and methods of the school curriculum.
If headteachers and governors are to be publicly accountable for the performance of their schools, so should the Government and the advisers and inspectors of its educational quangocracy answer for the national failure to raise standards - or even keep pace - in comparison with our neighbours and trading competitors.
A sure sign that the Government recognises this was the impromptu release on Monday of this year's national curriculum test results showing an apparent improvement at key stage 2 in maths and English. These were not due to be published until February next year, but clearly circumstances demanded some "good news" on the school achievement front and the fax machines of the Department for Education and Employment duly wheeled them out. Of course, even news management can backfire - and did. Sixty per cent achieving the ordained standard still leaves 40 per cent not doing so,as some less understanding headlines pointed out.
So, if you are looking for a country in which to educate your child, how does Britain rate on the various performance tables published this week? The good news is that according to the TIMSS, last year English 13-year-olds were at the top of division two in science - or at least, the kind of science measured by tests. They were comprehensively outscored by Singapore, the Czech Republic, Japan and Korea, but did substantially better than their peers in two-thirds of the countries studied. When it comes to performance in maths - so important for more advanced study and application of science and technology - UK High School had perhaps better emphasise its excellent extra-curricular opportunities such as drama.
Prospective parents are often told that it is improvement that counts rather than raw scores or rankings. The 10 percentage point boost in key stage 2 national curriculum test results for English and maths is remarkable for a single year. Whether it really represents higher attainment in maths and English or more practice at test questions - or whether or not these amount to the same thing - consumers are left to decide for themselves.
Less obviously good is the fall in science by 8 percentage points and the dire position at key stage 3, masked by a bit of goalpost shifting. In English, maths and science, 57 per cent got level 5 or above, representing small increases this year in English and science. But the original assessment target for 14- year-olds was the border between levels 5 and 6, not level 5. On that basis, 50 per cent should achieve level 6 and above. Only a quarter did so in English, one-third in maths and only 21 per cent in science.
The school exam league tables also provide national performance indicators. The five or more A* to C GCSE benchmark again shows an improvement and, like the improvement at key stage 2, is claimed as a victory for league tables and their ability to drive standards up. There is little sign that this is
benefiting the long tail of British underachievers so obvious in international comparisons. And the rate of percentage increase in five A to C grades has in fact diminished since league tables were introduced.
In the four years between the first GCSEs in 1989 and the introduction of tables in 1992, the five A* to C benchmark grew from 32.8 to 38.3 per cent - an average increase of 1.8 percentage points a year, or a growth of 16.8 per cent overall. In the five years since tables began, it has only grown to 44.5 per cent - 1.6 percentage points a year and 16.2 per cent overall.
League tables may have helped sustain the growth already underway. But at this rate the Government is going to fall a long way short of its target of 55 per cent obtaining five grades A to C or equivalent by the year 2000.And there is still no comparative scoring system for the vocational qualifications which are supposed to constitute that "equivalent". Of Gillian Shephard's strategy for supporting school improvement, the conclusion has to be, then, there are some signs of progress but she could,and should, do better.