League tables for 11-year-olds were first introduced in 1996, so what have they achieved? asks Jeremy Sutcliffe
THIS YEAR's primary tables include, for the first time, comparative figures to enable each school's progress to be measured over a four-year period.
It is therefore possible this year to analyse improvements made since universal tests for 11-year-olds were established in 1996 and consider the impact of league tables.
Since the primary tables were introduced by the outgoing Tory government, in early 1997, there have been mixed messages emanating from the Department for Education and Employment about their importance and value. Labour ministers first took the decision to cease to publish the tests on a national basis, requiring education authorities to publish them locally instead.
However, the Government was forced to backtrack when the national news agency, the Press Association (acting on behalf of national and regional newspapers, including The TES), decided in the interest of freedom of information to compile a national table. As a consequence, and somewhat reluctantly, the DFEE has now resumed national publication.
This official reluctance is fuelled by worries - widely shared by teachers - that primary tables are polarising schools, driving the best and the worst further apart. At the same time, however, the introduction of tables and the setting of Government attainment targets for English and mathematics, have coincided with a rapid improvement in test results since 1996.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the introduction of tests, their publication and the Government's emphasis on improvement have galvanised many schools.
The new improvement measure, based on an aggregate percentage score for the three core subjects, allows year-by-year progress to be measured for each school. The list of most improved primaries (page 2, opposite) follows the principle laid down by the DFEE, including only schools which have made consistent gains in each of the past four years.
That means that some schools, such as Mellers in Nottingham (see right) where the results dipped in one of those years, but which have made huge strides since 1996, have been excluded.
Since 1996, average performances in every LEA where figures are available have improved, with London boroughs and other traditionally low performing urban areas (for example, Tim Brighouse's Birmingham) showing the biggest improvements.
New and reorganised authorities also show universal signs of improvement on last year (see opposite page).
Not all the news is good, however. In a week when the Prime Minister has focused on the gap between rich and poor within regions, with affluence and poverty often living cheek by jowl, there are many schools which are failing to make progress.
Among the LEAs recorded as having made the least progress, some like Richmond upon Thames and Wokingham are traditional high-achievers - benefiting from prosperous populations. But there is concern about struggling Hackney, where almost half of 11-year-olds are failing to achieve the expected level in English, maths and science.
But it is important not to read performance tables in isolation. Two weeks ago, the publication of GCSE and A-level tables showed that some LEAs, currently struggling to make improvements in primary schools are making significant strides at secondary level.
Hammersmith and Fulham, for example, comes bottom of the improvement rankings for established LEAs at key stage 2, but topped the improvements for the percentage of its pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE. Even troubled Hackney - one of four LEAs recently failed by school inspectors - performs relatively well at key stage 4, rising out of the bottom 20.
Overall, the results are encouraging, and there are clear signs that the Government is within sight of achieving its target of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 in English and 75 per cent in mathematics by 2002. This says much about both Labour's determination and teachers' dedication in bringing about the improvement.
But the jury is still out on whether the publication of league tables has played any significant part in the progress.