Exam results this year show only a modest 1 per cent improvement in the number of pupils passing five top-grade GCSEs, suggesting the Government may be exaggerating the impact of league tables indriving up standards in schools.
More substantial gains were made in the first two years after 1992 when the tables were introduced. Since 1992, there has been a 16.2 per cent improvement over five years in the proportion of fifth-formers who gain five or more GCSEs grades A* to C.
However, in the first four years of the GCSE, which replaced O-levels in 1989, the equivalent results showed a 16.8 per centimprovement (see graph opposite).
While Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, emphasised the role of league tables in providing an impetus to schools to do better, Labour pointed out that the results show schools are far from achieving the national target for the year 2000 of 55 per cent of fifth-formers passing the benchmark figure of five or more top-grade GCSEs Overall this year, 44.5 per cent of pupils reached the benchmark, compared with an equivalent last year of 43.4 per cent. The figures show that on average grant-maintained schools do better, with 52 per cent of their pupils attaining the benchmark figure, but grammars and partly selective schools are over-reprepresented in that sector.
The equivalent figure for schools designated by the Department for Education and Employment as comprehensives - which will include schools that are partially selective - is 39.9 per cent. In the independent sector, the average for pupils achieving the GCSE benchmark is 72.52. However, independent schools that participate in the Assisted Places Scheme achieve an average of 90. 1 per cent.
The schools cited by Mrs Shephard as having made remarkable gains include the Lady Margaret School in Hammersmith and Fulham where the proportion of pupils with five GCSEs has increased from 48 per cent in 1992 to 90 per cent this year. The improvement in the proportion passing five GCSEs is not reflected in the figures for those leaving without a single grade. However, the 7.9 per cent leaving without anything is a marginal improvement on last year's 8.1 per cent.
Among the schools with the largest proportion of pupils leaving without any GCSEs are St Alan's Church of England school in Birmingham, and The Ridings in Calderdale, where 41 per cent failed to gain even the lowest grade.
In Knowsley, a borough that takes the overspill from Liverpool, almost one in five pupils leaves with no qualification. The figure for Middlesbrough and Manchester is 16.3 per cent.
The ranking of best performing schools is remarkably similar to previous years. In the main, top places are taken by schools that operate some form of selection, even though their DFEE designation is comprehensive.
The high-achieving local authorities are mainly outer London boroughs with relatively affluent populations. Small inner London boroughs cluster at the lower end. Islington remains bottom, despite improving its performance.
* Research based on this year's league tables confirms that fifth-formers are finding maths and modern foreign languages harder than English. Work carried out by the National Consortium for Examination Results shows that of the 15 main subjects taken at GCSE, pupils find German the most difficult, followed by design and technology and French. At the other end of the scale are drama, art and design and English.
Nationally, the average results for mathematics are a half grade below the average achieved by pupils taking English.
In almost all subjects, girls are now outperforming boys, but the analysis shows they achieve their highest results in English and other arts GCSEs. Boys achieve their best results in physics, maths anddouble science.
The consortium provides results to allow schools to establish the strengths of subject departments as measured against national figures.