Stake the secret garden

12th December 2003 at 00:00
We need fair and decent league tables just as a sentence needs commas and a garden pruning, says Sandy Adamson

I can't be the only reader of The TES who has been steeped in Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, alternatively called "The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation". It's a great read for us pedants, but is Lynne Truss right? And does it all matter?

Quite simply, yes. A good foundation in spelling, grammar and punctuation is crucial to language continuing to be used with precision. We all know that language lives and changes, and that it is properly deployed very differently in written and spoken modes; and that the language of text messaging is breaking all previous boundaries. That is all the more reason for ensuring that all pupils in all schools are taught the essentials. That is the mature basis for creative expression and imaginative writing. You cannot play music or football well without first learning the basics and then working endlessly on your technique. The playing of words well is no different.

I do not believe I caricature the past unfairly when I state that a good proportion of a generation of pupils went through their schooling with too little attention paid to these basic tools of language. That was a betrayal. That was why the literacy strategy was needed, why national tests were sensibly introduced, and why league tables have a role to play. They are part of the proper armoury of public accountability.

But they have to be fair. The league tables, published last week for primary schools, included the new "value-added" measure, and the schools in Hammersmith and Fulham came fourth best in the whole country. One of our schools - Brackenbury - had the best score in London, and the third best in the country. So, I rather like league tables, if they are fair.

Some teachers tend not to like league tables. It is just conceivable that this partly reflects a residual dose of "teacher knows best". Many of us will have memories of the old days, in my case when my son was at primary school in the 1980s. I well remember a meeting with his class teacher, when I asked how he was getting on. The answer was "he's doing quite well". I pressed, the real question at the back of my mind being how he was doing in relation to the rest of his class. To cut a long story short the teacher, who was very good indeed, said: "If you look over my shoulder at these marks, which I am not showing you, you will see his relative position in the class." And I did, but what a palaver to get information that was surely rightly mine.

I am in no doubt that teachers then thought they were doing the right thing in typically withholding such information. I am equally in no doubt that they were wrong. Behind even the best-intentioned secret garden wall breeds inefficiency, and just occasionally fashionable philosophies take root that are at odds with common sense, like assuming the average pupil will pick up the rules of language by osmosis.

So I do favour league tables - but only when they are fair. It is obvious that "raw" league tables are not fair as a measure of comparative performance, because they give pride of place to those schools with middle-class catchment areas. So it was a pleasure to have the additional value-added analysis, and to see and hear that aspect celebrated in the media. It does wonders for those schools that perform miracles in disadvantaged localities.

Sitting at home last Sunday, I conducted a little experiment of my own, ranking the Hammersmith and Fulham primaries, first in order of absolute performance, and then in value-added order. I then took for each school its two scores, for example 8th place in absolute terms but 25th in value-added terms, and took the average of the two, that example giving 16.5. I did the same for all schools, and then ranked them in that new composite order. I was not surprised to find that the upper reaches of my "premier table" were dominated by the schools I regard as the best in the LEA.

That was a rough and ready experiment. I intend to work with colleagues in schools on a more sophisticated table, testing it against the four criteria that matter: breadth of coverage; precision; fairness; and simplicity of comprehension for the parent. If and when we get it right, we will charge only a very modest fee to the Department for Education and Skills for its national use.

Sandy Adamson is director of education for Hammersmith and Fulham

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