In the golden, olden days you could reckon that children at grammar school would get a decent clutch of O-levels: seven or eight would have been regarded as the norm.
Cut to the London borough of Islington in the l990s and look at the achievement of their Band 1 children. That means the top 25 per cent of the ability range, based on scores in the London Reading Test - roughly equivalent to the old grammar school intake. Were they getting seven or eight GCSE grades A to C?
Well, no. Just six out of 10 (60.5 per cent) of the brightest children in the borough achieved five or more higher grade GCSEs last year. Overall, Islington's 16-year-olds achieved an average points score for all GCSE grades of 23.5, below the London average and substantially less than the average for the nation as a whole. Islington, admittedly the fourth most deprived borough in London, is fourth from bottom of the national league tables.
It was figures like these that convinced the leaders of Islington Council that something needed to be done to raise standards of achievement in the borough's schools. Phil Kelly, who became chair of education in 1993, and his fellow councillors chose a woman well suited to the task: Dr Hilary Nicolle, former headmistress of Tiffin Girls' School in Kingston, former deputy director of education in Wandsworth, and former chief executive of the School Examinations and Assessment Council.
Speaking recently in London, Dr Nicolle stressed the value of hard evidence in persuading schools to raise their achievement. "Schools in deprived areas quite understandably find it unacceptable, indeed meaningless, to compare themselves with national statistics on achievement," she told a seminar on school improvement organised by the Association of London Authorities. But they would accept comparisons with schools down the road with a broadly similar intake. And there were some statistics which were meaningful in any context, such as the borough's pupil attendance figures for Years 10 and 11.
"No matter what local or national comparisons may be," she said, "most heads will accept . . . that 20 per cent non-attendance (the figure for one school) is unacceptable."
Since 1993, Islington has tackled poor achievement in three ways. First, the borough has made a determined push to cut its high truancy levels, asking schools to set themselves improvement targets and developing community initiatives like Truancy Watch.
Second has been what Dr Nicolle calls the "sticking plaster" project, under which schools have been able to bid for up to Pounds 5,000 each to improve the achievement of individual pupils in Year 11 by such means as holiday revision courses.
Third, the borough has developed a long-term project to raise pupils' achievement in partnership with five out of the borough's nine secondary schools (all volunteers). Schools taking part have had to agree that the head should lead the project: too often, says Dr Nicolle, such projects have foundered because the head has not been totally involved. And they have had to give a commitment to raising the number of GCSE grades A to C in the core subjects of English, maths and science.
Since the project started last September, the first internal audit of schools has thrown up key issues about teachers' use of time and their approach to marking and grouping pupils. It has shown the key importance of heads of department in achieving high and consistent standards in a particular subject.
Some teachers seemed to spend a great deal of time developing their own teaching materials, leaving too little for marking pupils' work. Some were very reluctant to grade pupils' work because they thought it would depress them. And some appeared to lack experience in preparing pupils in examination techniques.
Paul Smith, head of Holloway School, says his school's participation in the project has been valuable because of the contact with other schools, the involvement of the borough (which is matching any extra spending) and because it is so specific.
Some of the staff at his school queried the exclusive concern with raising the number of A to C grades, arguing that an improvement from F to D was also a success, but he said it was important to narrow the focus.
Attendance at the all-boys' school has traditionally been good, says Mr Smith, but exam results are still low, although they have risen: from only 6 per cent of pupils getting five or more A to C grades in 1992 to 12 per cent last year. This year, after a detailed look at what each pupil could achieve in ideal circumstances, the aim is to get 17 per cent of pupils up to that standard.
At Holloway, the "sticking plaster" money has funded hour-long evening revision classes three times a week for Year 11 pupils, preceded by a l0-minute break for a hot drink, a bun and a sandwich. About 70 per cent of pupils have been attending regularly, he says, with 90 per cent at some sessions.