Primaries fail the test

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Edinburgh tables show 'startling variations' in performance among schools with same free meal rating

EDINBURGH is stepping up its scrutiny of school performance after the first set of test results from primaries revealed unexpectedly wide variations from schools with the same social backgrounds.

The city council will next week become the first authority to publish primary figures for individual schools, showing free meal ratings and how they are performing in reading, writing and maths against national 5-14 targets.

"These figures show startling variations between schools in the same free meal grouping and I must say I was surprised," Elizabeth Maginnis, Edinburgh's education convener, told The TES Scotland. "I am certain our staff will also be taken aback."

The fact that performance figures are set against each school's free meal entitlement "allows the schools to be judged fairly in terms of the nature of the school and its community", Mrs Maginnis says. "But it also allows us to ask searching questions about the contribution each school is making to the education of its pupils."

"It removes the rug of complacency from the argument that 'these kids are from such-and-such an estate so what can you expect'," Roy Jobson, Edinburgh's director of education, comments. "Now they can see in many cases that a school drawing its pupils from exactly the same background is doing much better."

Mrs Maginnis says the data also challenges the complacency of schools in more favoured areas which may believe, wrongly, that they are doing a good job.

Primary schools in the most disadvantaged areas of Edinburgh range from 59 per cent of pupils attaining their 5-14 level in reading to 25 per cent; from 42 per cent to 13 per cent in writing; and from 61 per cent to 26 per cent in maths. The average for the 15 primaries in that group is 39 per cent in reading against a target of 54 per cent by 2002, 26 per cent in writing against a target of 40 per cent and 44 per cent in maths against a target of 61 per cent.

At the other end of the social spectrum, involving 21 primaries, there is an equally significant range - from 94 per cent reaching their 5-14 level in reading to 62 per cent; from 93 per cent to 40 per cent in writing; and from 98 per cent to 65 per cent in maths.

Even more remarkably, an analysis of the figures shows that one primary whose roll is almost entirely eligible for free meals has 60 per cent of its pupils at the right reading level, twice the expected figure and three times the attainment of another school where fewer than half the pupils take free meals.

The variations are much more marked in the case of writing, and the council plans to issue detailed criteria on this in June.

"We must now get underneath these figures in discussion with headteachers," Mr Jobson said. "We are not intent on constructing crude league tables which demoralise schools that are doing their best in difficult circumstances. It's about analysing the successes, and the problems, in comparable schools and seeing what lessons can be learnt."

Edinburgh is prepared to take on the objection that the system is flawed because the 5-14 data is unreliable or the free meal index too imprecise. "It's the best information we have," Mrs Maginnis said, "and, if there is an issue about reliability, all schools are in the same position."

She acknowledged that the wide variation in primary test results stems from a number of factors such as the large number of schools, the fact that 5-14 assessment is not standardised but based on teachers' judgments and the aggregation of four 5-14 levels into a single score.

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