Tables lose their terror;Leading Article;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

26th November 1999 at 00:00
THE reams of exam tables (ScotlandPlus, pages 5-9) tell their usual confusing story. Or rather they tell a multitude of stories which become confusing only when commentators seek national lessons. To individual headteachers the figures may be startlingly transparent, signalling good news or bad that has to be passed on to parents, or at least to the school board, and will be noted in the director's office if nowhere else.

The Government has, however, stopped reading so much into the annual tables. Comments this year are particularly restrained - modest pleasure is as far as the Education Minister goes. That contrasts with the brouhaha of a few years ago when even the most statistically challenged of ministers and journalists wrestled with the pros and cons of value-added adjustments, and everyone wildly disregarded the "health warnings" that accompanied the tables.

It might be thought that the tables are less newsworthy now that they are familiar, but one can be confident that mischief-makers would still have a field day if they cherry-picked the figures to make a political point. Yet with the Executive adopting a low-key response, the media have done so, too. It does not take a statistician to see from the three-year tables that a school's performance can fluctuate considerably year by year, the more so if its roll is tiny. There is little mileage in lauding (or berating) a small rural or island school for a single year's results when the following year is likely to be closer to the norm.

Ministers have a special reason for restraint. They have instituted targets for both schools and local authorities, and these have two years to run. While institutions are striving to reach the targets they have to be allowed to get on with the job. But it is heartening none the less (page four) that schools are closely approaching or overtaking their targets.

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