What a difference a school makes

9th May 1997 at 01:00
As 11-year-olds sit down to take their national curriculum tests in English, maths and science next week, many teachers will again question whether there is any point in publishing the raw results for parents and the general public. Many argue that "value-added" information ought to be incorporated into the results next to the grades, showing how much each school has actually contributed to the child's learning.

Value-added approaches use information on children's social backgrounds - measured, for example, by whether they take free school dinners - and their previous educational achievement to help show how effectively the school has done its job.

Carol Fitz-Gibbon, professor of education at Durham University and director of its curriculum, education performance and management centre, believes the value-added approach will revolutionise the work of schools. More than 2,000 schools use the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools scheme, one of several systems developed by the centre.

"Value-added will transform what schools do," says Professor Fitz-Gibbon. "It will reduce the amount of advice teachers are given by politicians on everything from school uniform to homework, because schools will be able to use the information to see what works in the classroom and what doesn't."

Professor Fitz-Gibbon heads a group of academics working on the Value-Added National Project, set up by the Government two years ago to investigate such techniques. Its interim report, published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority two years ago, concluded that the value-added approach was indeed worth pursuing. The group's full report, to be published soon, is expected to confirm the finding and to recommend what sort of scheme should be adopted nationally.

It should settle the debate over whether the value-added approach is a useful tool for teachers. And it may suggest what information, if any, should be published in the test performance tables alongside raw examination results.

One of the foremost opponents of publishing raw test results, Ian Schagen, head of statistics at the National Foundation for Educational Research, has been involved in value-added studies of schools for several years, using its Qualitiative Analysis for Self-Evaluation scheme. But he believes such analyses should be used only by the school rather than being published in league tables.

"I'm all in favour of doing value-added analysis to inform schools and help them improve what they are doing. But they should be used to focus on school improvement rather than being bandied about.

"They are not very useful if you're trying to compare schools, because so many factors influence children's performance and the information can be misleading. It can obscure the picture rather than making it clearer."

David Winkley, head of Grove primary school in Birmingham and director of the National Primary Trust, also believes a value-added approach is extremely useful.

His school has developed a computer database using detailed results of children's tests in maths, language and science which is particularly useful, says Dr Winkley, for spotting weak areas in children's learning and picking up pupils with special educational needs.

But he remains strongly opposed to publishing test results as league tables in their current form.

Critics of the system, which includes the percentage of children in each school who gain the national curriculum level 4, say it is worse than useless as a measure of how good a job schools are doing for their children.

One of the most vocal critics is Professor Fitz-Gibbon herself. She has argued that publishing the percentage figure leads children who have not reached level 4 to feel they have failed.

Instead, she says, an average grade for each school should be published, as already happens with A-levels, together with some form of value-added information.

"If there are to be league tables, they should include some indication of the valued-added, but preferably in curriculum areas rather than for the whole school," she says. "But value-added is here to stay. Every year we will have the information to see what works in the classroom, and will help to show what a complex and difficult job teachers do."

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