Monster unleashed again

14th March 1997 at 00:00
There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. And then there are the primary school league tables.

Masses of paper has been expended in this week's publication, with just two clear facts emerging. It is the biggest propaganda exercise since World War II. Grange School in Southwark is the worst primary in Britain. Pounds 1.3 million well spent, then.

The problem with this giant exercise in parent information is that the volume of information is so huge - and so open to interpretation - that the papers could not agree on how to handle it. Only the Independent and The Times dared publish the lot in hefty supplements, providing their own rankings. Even they omitted the figures for teacher assessments, which thus failed to get a public airing (except in today's TES).

The Guardian took a loftier view, publishing four different regional supplements. "We have assumed parents in Cornwall will not have much interest in the results of individual primaries in Northumberland, since we have not heard that morning school runs are yet that long," it smirked, adding that it intended to protect "a good few acres of newsprint-producing forest in the process".

The Daily Mail also opted to save trees, but explained this was "to ensure readers get the best possible information".

With almost 13,000 eligible schools, this was the pragmatic approach. Less helpful was the Daily Telegraph's supplement listing in rank only the schools with the best English scores.

For exhaustive coverage, The Times was the paper. "Almost 80 schools with an incomplete set of results has had to be omitted. A quarter of them lost some or all of their test papers in a series of bizarre incidents, including a parcel van robbery and a fire."

The Guardian also saw itself as on the side of the angels in not attempting to rank schools in any order other than alphabetical. "The Government's data is too dodgy for that to be done responsibly, although some newspapers seem determined to try," wrote education editor John Carvel.

He added: "There can be little doubt that Mrs Shephard expected the newspapers to turn the pass percentages into school league tables. But there have been signs over the past few weeks that the Department for Education and Employment's Dr Frankensteins knew their monster was getting out of control.

"At a briefing for journalists, officials warned they could not approve a system that would aggregate the results into a single school score. They were accused of washing their hands while the media did the Government's dirty work."

Hacks wasted little time in fingering Grange Primary as the nation's worst. These included the Guardian's news pages as well as the Mirror's. The Mirror stormed "F For Failed Your Kids," blaming the Government. Worst primary Grange may be, but by opening its doors to the press and engagingly admitting its problems, it came out on top for sympathetic coverage.

Top rankings caused more problems. Which primary is the best in Britain? Depends which paper you read but The Sun choose Fairway Primary in London's Mill Hill. "SWOT A CLEVER LOT," it exulted, "The primary school named the best in Britain yesterday revealed the secret of its success - plenty of HOMEWORK. "

While the Sun and the Mirror restricted coverage to two pages, with the former listing the top and bottom 20 schools and the latter the hundred top and bottom, and the Daily Star failed to mention league tables on the day, the Daily Mail's front page claimed it contained nine pages of tables (but one was a full-page advert).

Few papers bothered with leaders. The Daily Telegraph mused: "The tables were intended as much to force teachers to abandon ineffective methods as to offer parents information," adding that Labour-controlled education authorities did worst.

The Guardian concluded: "The Prime Minister has proposed publishing performance tables for tests at 7 and 14, but we have to warn him there are limits to our appetite." And the world's paper supply.

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