Numbers reveal a complex figure
Stories sneaked out to the press on a Sunday afternoon smack of "news management". Last week's announcement from the Department for Education and Employment that 11-year-olds have shown clear improvement in their national curriculum tests results was just such a case.
It duly turned out to be a lump of good news carefully placed at the start of a week dominated by league tables, alarming international comparisons in maths and the Education Secretary's special conference on school improvement.
The overall results, gained from a preliminary analysis by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority showed that: u At key stage 1 the results for seven-year-olds remained broadly the same as last year with 78 per cent reaching the expected grade (level 2) in reading, 79 per cent in writing and 82 per cent in mathematics.
u At key stage 2, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching level 4 rose from 48 to 58 per cent in English; 44 to 54 per cent in mathematics; and declined from 70 per cent to 62 per cent in science.
u The 14-year-olds at key stage 3 showed little improvement on last year with 57 per cent reaching level 5 in English (55 per cent last year); 57 per cent in maths (57 per cent); and 57 per in science (56 per cent).
Determined to put an encouraging gloss on the figures, junior education minister Cheryl Gillan said this meant that more than four-fifths of seven-year-olds reached or exceeded the expected level of performance; as did between half and two thirds of 11-year-olds; and between half and two thirds of 14-year-olds.
The key stage 2 results were indeed noteworthy: in both maths and English the pupils registered gains of 10 percentage points on last year. Moreover, these are the figures which will be used to compile the forthcoming league tables of primary school results. True, in science there was a decline, but this is almost certainly down to the fact that this year's science test was deliberately made harder.
Mrs Gillan said that the results "confirm that our 11-year-olds are doing better as teachers build on the first year of tests". David Hawker, the assistant chief executive in charge of statutory assessment at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority also felt that there were signs of progess.
"Eleven-year-olds have done better in English and maths for at least two reasons," he said. "The first is that they have been better taught in the areas that the tests are testing. Second, they have been better prepared for the tests. The tests have been intrinsically fair.
"In maths there have been improvements in basic number work and development all-round in wider areas. In English, composition and writing skills have shown an improvement. There has been a general trend towards teaching English and maths in a focused way."
This said, there was no similar hike in the standards achieved by seven or 14-year-olds and, as both the Government and the SCAA are keen to say, the overall picture leaves much room for improvement, particularly at key stages 2 and 3 (upper primary and lower secondary).
At key stage 3 the picture is more complex - and even less flattering - than the Government allows. While it expects 80 per cent of pupils to reach level 5, it also expects 50 per cent of them to go on to level 6 - a stage reached by just under 27 per cent of the summer's pupils. Although longstanding, this target receives little publicity.
Key stage 3 is becoming an area of particular concern to the SCAA. "In terms of the average levels of achievement we do tend to have a rather wide spread of performance," said Mr Hawker. "There are too many level 3s and 4s at key stage 3 who really ought to be achieving level 5 by then.
"One of the causes of that underachievement in my view is that there's not yet any tradition of good curriculum continuity between stages 2 and 3. I think pupils do go backwards when they get to key stage 3. There's no reason to take pupils back to level 3 if they are already achieving level 4 and 5 when they come to secondary school.
"There's some good practice around. But we must spread that good practice. "