The first national league table of primary schools, published this week, reveals not only the differences in standards achieved in schools, but also the range of scores achieved by 11-year-olds from apparently similar backgrounds.
Across the country, only 57 per cent of pupils reached the 100 per cent target in English; 55 per cent achieved the target in maths and 62 per cent in science. There are 15 primary schools where all 11-year-olds achieved the 100 per cent target in the three subjects. The worst performers include 24 schools where fewer than 10 per cent of pupils achieved the expected level and around 300 schools where only 20 per cent of pupils achieved level 4.
An analysis carried out by The TES suggests that schools with the highest number of children on free school meals face a more uphill task in achieving high scores, but some primaries are producing remarkable results.
In the London borough of Lambeth, St John Divine, one of the first primary schools judged by the Office for Standards in Education to be failing to provide adequate education, has achieved results well above the national average. Almost 90 per cent of the 11-year-olds at the Church of England school where three-quarters of pupils are on free school meals achieved the target in maths.
Overall, church schools are on average out-performing county schools. The scale of their success is evident from the top 100 schools - 32 are voluntary-aided and 27 are voluntary-controlled. Of the bottom 100, only 10 are voluntary-aided and six voluntary-controlled.
The figures also appear to suggest that grant-maintained schools have better results, but they have remained a small proportion of the total of primaries.
The tables provide the first national picture of levels of achievement in the basics by 11-year-olds.
The reasons for the differences between schools are not clear from the tables. Small schools appear to be performing better on average, but this may be due to the fact that more small schools are found in rural areas. Analysis by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority suggests that in areas of deprivation, larger primaries may be having more success.
In looking at the 1995 results, the SCAA found the median score in maths in schools where less than 10 per cent of pupils were entitled to free school meals was 92 compared with a median score in maths of 71 in schools where more than 35 per cent of children were on free school meals. The same exercise has yet to be carried out on the 1996 results, but the median figures will be higher, because maths results have improved nationally by 10 per cent.
At local authority level, the TES table below shows the highest scores are in areas with relatively low levels of deprivation, but there are exceptions. The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea ranks fifteenth, even though a third of primary pupils are on free school meals. It is also the borough that spends most on its 10-year-olds. The average amount received by schools for each 10-year-old in Kensington and Chelsea is #163;1,848, almost twice as much as for a 10-year-old in Sheffield.
The ranking of local authorities is usually in line with their ranking on results at GCSE, but there are striking differences. West Sussex is 10th in the secondary school tables and 34th in the primary league. North Tyneside is 29th in the primary table and 60th in the secondary table.
The decision to publish the tables has been condemned by the teacher unions and academics as being unfair to schools. In particular, the unions are angry at what they have identified as errors in marking and what they regard as the betrayal of the promise by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, not to produce tables until the tests had "bedded down".
However, Caroline Gipps, professor of education at the London Institute of Education, believes the tables do provide useful, although limited, information on schools.
"They don't tell parents about sport, art or drama or the moral and social development of pupils. However, they do give us an indication of whether most youngsters in a school are going to reach a particular level," she says. Professor Gipps suggests differences between schools with similar intakes are likely to be linked to the ethos of the school; the time spent on work; monitoring of results, effectiveness of management and quality of teaching.
Both Labour and Conservative sought to gain political capital from the tables. John Major insisted that long-standing Conservative councils had the best results. The 10 authorities at the bottom of the league are Labour-controlled.
Labour countered by claiming the Tories were attempting to throw a smokescreen over ministers' failure to raise standards. David Blunkett, the party's education spokesman, said 40 of the top 100 schools are in Labour-controlled areas; three are in Tory-controlled areas; four are GM; three are in Liberal-Democrat-controlled areas and 50 are in politically hung local authorities. However, the factors behind the results may be more complicated than the politics of the ruling group on the LEA.
Mrs Shephard hailed their publication - the results of around 600,000 pupils in around 14,500 schools - as the biggest public information campaign since the Second World War.