Support role is crucial, says Labour
Labour is examining ways in which children's attainments could be measured at 11 in order to gauge the effectiveness of secondary schools.
The party's new education spokesman, David Blunkett, has come out in favour of league tables - provided that they are used to improve standards in under-performing schools and help make them more accountable to parents.
In order to do this, he believes, the league tables need to be made value-added so that performance is measured relative to the ability of the school's intake.
"A secondary school that takes children at 11, whose reading age lags several years behind, deserves praise if pupils then go on to achieve average GCSE results. This will spur further improvements. At present, the Government's tables simply leave such schools to languish in mid-table," he wrote in an article in The Times this week.
League tables, he said, should be used to lift and support schools by making them accountable to parents and responsive to early action by the Office for Standards in Education and the local authority.
He praised both the Inner London Education Authority, which pioneered value-added tables during the 1980s and - perhaps significantly - Birmingham, which is currently constructing a system which monitors the abilities of five-year-olds entering school to use as a baseline for later achievement.
Measuring intake at 11 and improving the performance of all schools leaves Labour apparently advocating testing and league tables for children leaving primaries, but sources close to Mr Blunkett insist this is not the case.
It is understood that no decisions have yet been made, but interest is focusing on testing children as they arrive at secondary school for later comparison with GCSE and other examination results, rather than looking at primary achievements.
However, the team is also understood to be concerned about standards in primary schools and Mr Blunkett has emphasised that Labour's new policies "will target those who are struggling from the start," with reading recovery and home-school liaison schemes as part of the programme.
One way of gaining information on schools which are failing their pupils may be through the league tables for 11-year-olds which the Government has been planning to introduce next year. Should they go ahead, it is most unlikely that they would later be scrapped by Labour, particularly since it is understood that the party would do nothing to reduce the amount of information available to parents. Mr Blunkett told BBC1's Breakfast With Frost: "I am in favour of information and I don't think you can hide that information from parents. "
Reinforcing the message in his Times article, he wrote: "Information available only to those with knowledge and access to it excludes and patronises those who should be encouraged to demand and expect higher standards . . . Facts available to the very few inevitably disadvantage the many."
Mr Blunkett is canvassing opinion from heads, teachers and parents on how standards can be raised and considering research - including the forthcoming report from the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority - on how league tables can be made value-added.
* Proposals for how value-added league tables might work are due to be published by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Agency during the next few weeks.
The SCAA working party, chaired by Dr John Marks, is understood to have come up with several options, including one from Professor Michael Barber for a "rolling averages" system which would log year-on-year improvement in individual schools. This is not technically a value-added system but a much-simplified version of it is understood to be planned for next year's tables. Another possibility is believed to be comparison of predicted GCSE performance in children entering secondary school with their actual results.
Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has made clear her interest in value-added league tables, saying that raw figures "cannot, on their own, tell the full story." She commented: "When we have the results of the 11-year-olds' tests, then of course it will give secondary schools the chance to demonstrate what they have achieved."