Specialist schools are making big leaps forward this year. Nicolas Barnard reports.
NOBODY likes them, everybody reads them, and even the Prime Minister appears to be cooling towards league tables as the Department for Education and Employment publishes the 1999 batch.
Tony Blair, speaking on a visit to La Sainte Union Convent School in Camden on Tuesday, sympathised with the pupil who criticised league tables during a question-and-answer session.
"I think people do understand that (league tables) can be really crude as a guide," he admitted. "But on the other hand it is difficult as a government not to give the information when it is available."
He added: "Whatever you think about league tables, there are schools that are in exactly the same position and have exactly the same social mix of pupils but do quite differently."
This year's tables suggest good news for Mr Blair and the Government. The improvement in the number of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs is the greatest for several years - up by 1.6 percentage points to 47.9 per cent against the national target of 50 per cent by 2002. Two-thirds of schools saw their results go up.
The improvement was particularly marked among the fast-growing band of specialist schools, and prompted schools minister Estelle Morris to announce the creation of another 43 yesterday. The Government wants one school in four to have specialist status by 2003.
Ministers were also pleased that the number of pupils leaving with no GCSEs fell to 6 per cent this year, 3,000 students fewer than last year, and 15,000 fewer than in 1997. But 35,000 school-leavers are still without qualifications.
The Government is making fewer inroads on truancy, unchanged at 1.1 per cent of half-days lost through unauthorised absence, despite the launch of a national strategy. Ministers have had more success with cutting authorised absence and are pleased that truancy rates have at least stopped rising. They hope the Excellence in Cities programme will produce further gains.
At A-level, the average point score of students taking two or more subjects rose from 17.8 to 18.2, while the average score of students taking an advanced general national vocational qualification rose from 9.6 to 9.9.
Beyond that, the tables throw up their usual mixture of success stories, anomalies and conflicting messages. Table-topper the Isles of Scilly, for example - last year's most improved authority - has fallen furthest this year. But then only 31 pupils sat GCSEs.
Opponents of privatisation, meanwhile, might raise an eyebrow at Islington's position as one of the fastest-improved authorities - its 3.9 per cent rise in pupils getting five good passes was more than twice the national average. It nevertheless remains at the foot of the table, with only Hull and Knowsley below it.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, congratulated schools, but said: "League tables remain deeply flawed, since they take no account of the ability of the pupils on entry to the school."
He was also critical of the DFEE's publication of a list of the most improved schools, featuring only those that had raised their GCSE pass rate every year since 1996. Only 236 out of 5,000 secondary schools managed that feat, and the table missed out several fast-improving schools which suffered an odd dip, including three which outstripped its "top-performing" school.
"The expectation that every school will improve each year is not tenable," Mr Dunford said. "Schools will inevitably have weaker year groups from time to time."