No comparison;Talkback

8th May 1998 at 01:00
After the PICSIand the league tables, Mike Armstrong felt his PANDA failed to perform as promised.

I am privileged to be the headteacher of one of the 200 worst schools in the country - according to the league tables. The community I serve suffers real deprivation: 62 per cent of pupils take free school meals. Yet the strong community spirit and positive response to the facilities we provide make going to work feel worthwhile - most days.

After the humiliation of our pre-inspection content of school indicator (PICSI) - we spent our first inspection apologising that our children live in the inner city and not in the leafy suburb surrounding the school - and of the league tables, I was looking forward to our performance and assessment (PANDA) report, in which like would be compared with like.

It arrived. It stated clearly: "Your school's performance data are shown I in comparison with other schools situated in similar contexts."

I believed it. Why should I not? It came from the Office for Standards in Education. They know about these things.

I ignored the depressing comparison with national averages. It's not that our kids can't achieve at the same level - they can - they just need a bit more help and until recently, we have not seen a lot of that.

Then came the full monty - comparison of my school with schools in similar contexts. At key stage 3, not bad, but not so clever as I'd thought. And, as for GCSE I visions of yet more public admonishments.

I put it down and looked at the PANDA Annex with its graph displaying the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals and it dawned. The judgments relate to the same categories as the national benchmarks. My kids are not being compared with kids in a similar context - they are being compared, in some cases, with kids in schools where only half as many suffer the kind of deprivation that mine do (well, almost).

Even though my school falls into the category with between 60 and 65 per cent of pupils on free school meals, we are being compared with all schools where 35 per cent or more pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Could OFSTED be so uncaring? They would not do that to me. Why not? They sent me PICSIs. They sent me league tables.

I called the PANDA helpline to ask if my assumption was correct. "I don't know. You need to speak to a statistician. Try this number."

I tried and asked my question: "Is my school compared with others in a similar context, those where 60-65 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, or is it compared with all schools where 35 per cent or more pupils are eligible for free school meals?" "I don't know. You need to speak to a statistician. What's your urine?" "I beg your pardon?" "Your URN. The number on the top right hand corner of page one of your PANDA."

"Wouldn't you rather have my telephone number?" Apparently not. Like my doctor, the PANDA people can find out everything about me from my URN.

The next day the statistician phoned. "Yes, you are right. You are being compared with all those in the 35-per-cent-plus category."

"Surely, if there is a significant difference in expectation of achievement in schools at the 5 per cent level of eligibility and the 9 per cent level of eligibility, is it not reasonable that there should be a difference in expectation between, say, 40 per cent and 62 per cent?" "Yes, and it would be statistically reliable."

I invited him to have a nice day. The next batch of papers are to be called FAIRIES, I understand - Irrelevant Information and Education Statistics. Don't know what the F and the A stand for, though.

Mike Armstrong is head of Wilford Meadows comprehensive school, Nottingham

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