Raw challenge

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
The Department for Education and Employment is trumpeting the publication of the forthcoming key stage 2 school performance tables as the "biggest public information exercise in education history". But it could equally well be characterised as the biggest-ever misinformation exercise.

Yes, it is true that parents are entitled to know whether their children's school is doing much better or worse than a neighbouring school with a similar pupil intake. And yes, there is no question that greater public accountability can galvanise a school, to say the least. One only needs to look at the miraculous improvement in some schools' GCSE results to see the magic that league tables can work.

But what is being proposed for March 1997 is not a school performance table so much as a pupil performance table. Peter Tymms, a reader in education at Durham University and one of the country's leading authorities on the assessment of primary pupils, summed up the position accurately this week when he said: "Although I believe assessment can be invaluable - it is my life's work - the data that will be published next March are raw, therefore they reflect the pupils that go to the school rather than the quality of the school itself. " This will be particularly true of the many inner-city schools with transient pupil populations (some city primary classes experience a 60 per cent pupil-turnover in a single year).

The consultation document that the DFEE released this week says that the tables will contain "relevant background information" about the 14,000-plus primary and middle schools whose results will be published. This contextual information, however, amounts to little more than the school's address. There will be no other useful indicator of the catchment area a school is serving, such as the number of pupils entitled to free meals. The DFEE will doubtless point out that the proposed table will have a category headed "number of pupils disapplied from the national curriculum assessment requirements", but this will mean nothing to parents, without extensive footnotes. "Disapplied" pupils can have severe learning problems, substantial language difficulties, or be suffering acute emotional stress, and they represent a tiny percentage of the pupil population.

Parents will also be unable to compare the key stage 2 results with any prior-achievement indicator such as the key stage 1 levels that the same pupils obtained in 1992, because only a handful of authorities, such as Avon, still have the earlier statistics. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will be comparing some of the surviving 1992 data with the 1996 results in the hope of identifying a robust value-added measure that might one day help readers to put the key stage 2 results into context. But no one should expect a universally acceptable ready-reckoner to emerge from this pilot study because the organisational and technical problems that have to be overcome are formidable.

There are, however, other important reasons why teachers should be concerned about these tables. The performance indicator that the DFEE has chosen - the percentage of children achieving level 4 or better in English, maths and science - is not a particularly good one because it will encourage schools to concentrate on a relatively narrow band of pupils. Just as secondary schools worried by their five or more GCSE "passes" rating have focused on pupils heading for a D, primary staff will inevitably home in on the level 3s who have the potential to move up a grade. High-flyers and level 1 children may not be ignored in the process but there are no guarantees. For this reason an "average score" indicator would be much more sensible, even if it meant adapting the six-level primary assessment system.

Moreover, doubts remain about the reliability of the tests themselves, despite this week's reassurances from SCAA. The authority's officials have responded to reminders about the inadequacies of last year's key stage 2 tests (TES, July 28, 1995) by saying that they are confident they have "now reached a stage in 1996 where they are of high quality", but wouldn't they have said the same thing in 1995?

But perhaps we should be even more concerned about the extra pressure that the publication of results will place on Year 6 pupils and teachers. And what about the further polarisation of the education system that will ensue when middle-class parents are given one more reason to move into the catchment areas of the highest-rated schools? At the other end of the scale, will there be any help available for schools at the bottom of the pile that the press will single out for special treatment?

The Welsh Office is obviously aware of these inevitable problems and has sensibly decided to let the DFEE wade into this crocodile-infested water first. English primary teachers would obviously prefer to keep their feet dry, too.

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