Name that difference;Opinion

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Oddly, last week's local education authority test results passed almost unnoticed - even though the performance of education authorities is currently under scrutiny. Perhaps this was because the raw figures told an all-too familiar story. The usual suspects (impoverished inner-London boroughs, big cities in the Northern heartlands, new urban unitaries which have been "doughnutted" and lost their well-off rural areas) did badly. Affluent suburbs and shire counties did comparatively well.

Dissatisfied with this thin gruel, The TES has followed up with some research on its own account. We compared the key stage 2 results with the figures for free school meals. The new data tell a rather different story - although some poverty-stricken authorities still languish at the bottom of the table.

Others, however, show up well. Kensington and Chelsea (which sounds posh but has nearly 44 per cent of its primary pupils eligible for free school meals) did far better than most other authorities. Hammersmith and Fulham (Tony Blair's favoured authority), which also has a 44 per cent on free meals, is highly-placed.

The proportion of free dinners is, of course, only a rough and ready indicator of deprivation. Other factors - such as the percentage of children who do not speak English at home - also make good results harder to achieve. What is clear, however, is that some LEAs in less-favoured areas do deliver good results for their pupils. How does Sefton manage to do so well, when Bradford, with slightly fewer free meals, comes out so badly? And a further mystery: why is Newham, still glowing from its favourable OFSTED report, so far below the line? Birmingham and Manchester, put on the rack by OFSTED last year, do not seem to be under-achieving.

Our calculations back up what Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, has always said - that some schools are letting down working-class children, while others give them a better deal. This, clearly, is also true of LEAs. The weakest authorities will struggle to meet the Government's targets, unless the national literacy and numeracy strategies have a disproportionate effect. The key questions now must be: what are the fairest and most accurate performance indicators for LEAs? How do we identify the ingredient which makes the difference? And having found it, how do we bottle it?

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