It was rather fitting that the Government's trumpeting of this year's school and college performance tables should be drowned out by the brouhaha over the Panorama interview. The Princess of Wales recalled that because she didn't have any O or A-levels the media used to portray her as "someone who was stupid". The interview proved otherwise, and must have caused some of the 21 million viewers to ponder what examinations actually measure and why so many youngsters, from even the most privileged of homes, leave school without a single qualification.
The second of these questions is particularly relevant this week because the 1995 school statistics appear to confirm what many critics of the tables have predicted - that their emphasis on higher-grade GCSEs will cause some schools to devote less attention to "non-academic" children. The proportion of children gaining five good GCSEs has risen slightly, but there has been a concomitant increase in the percentage leaving without a GCSE of any kind (the figure now stands at 8.1 per cent in England and 11 per cent in Wales).
But perhaps this is unsurprising because it is now evident that these performance tables have both benign and malign effects. Many pupils are gaining more qualifications than in the days when schools could still tick the "no publicity" box. Schools such as St Saviour's and St Olave's in Southwark, which was embarrassed when only 17 per cent of its pupils gained five GCSE passes last year, have more than doubled their percentage rating this year by introducing a homework club, extending their library hours, offering Easter revision help, and trying to involve parents.
The tables have goaded other schools and local authorities into anti-truancy drives and have helped to highlight the alarming gender gap in achievement at GCSE and A-level (63 per cent of local authority girls' schools' pupils achieved five good GCSEs but the comparative figure for LEA boys' schools was only 45 per cent).
Unfortunately, the negative consequences have been at least as significant. Most of the highest-ranking LEA and GM schools have become even more oversubscribed and are consequently choosing - or being forced - to introduce new methods of controlling their intake such as part-selection, transforming the less favoured comprehensives in their area into de facto secondary moderns. As a result, some parents become desperate to avoid sending their children to such schools and the number of admission appeals mushrooms. Labour, in the form of its education spokesman, Peter Kilfoyle, has this week drawn attention to the "twelvefold gap" between the best and worst schools.
The tables' emphasis on the five-GCSEs benchmark has also helped to devalue the GCSE grades D-G to such an extent that they are, arguably, now worth even less than the old CSE, and they have done nothing to increase the uptake of vocational qualifications.
The obsession with boosting exam results has also meant, as an Association of London Government study confirmed last week, that local authorities channel any school improvement money that is sloshing around towards the secondary sector (schemes to improve primary pupils' literacy came 13th in the order of popularity). Furthermore, the tables have undoubtedly made secondary schooling more pressured, and perhaps less enjoyable, for both pupils and teachers. Even some public schools are apparently complaining that it's hard to fit in some cricket practice nowadays.
The National Union of Teachers would naturally like to see the tables scrapped but that is merely wishful thinking because even if the Labour party wins the next election this Pounds 1.5 million public information exercise seems set to continue. The best that can realistically be hoped in the short term is that the tables will offer an increasingly rounded picture of school and local authority achievements. An average GCSE points score rather than the five GCSEs A-C benchmark might help to draw schools' attention away from the CD borderline. The introduction of a new column in this year's schools table which gives the number of children with special needs who have not been statemented is another step in a fairer direction. But if this statistic is to count for as much as it should there must be agreement on what constitutes a special need.
A further column giving the percentage of pupils entitled to free meals, a fair indicator of social need, could be useful too. It would certainly put a different complexion on achievement, or lack of it, in Manchester, Knowsley, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Islington, where many families exist on Income Support. It is true that providing data on special needs and poverty may serve to scare off parents even more effectively than the raw scores do. But perhaps we should take that risk.