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Turn-up for the books

David Budge reports on a new analytical tool that has thrown up some paradoxical results. Boys may be entitled to feel resentful about being overtaken by girls in the GCSE stakes, judging by new findings from the National Foundation for Educational Research.

Analysis of the school records and GCSE results of 13,000 pupils in 69 secondaries suggests that boys attend school more regularly than the girls, who now outshine them in every subject except maths.

NFER statistician Ian Schagen said that the boys' attendance record was 2.4 per cent better than the girls'. But, paradoxically, he also found that pupils with good attendance records usually scored well at GCSE. "The average total points score rises by 0.38 per cent for every 1 per cent extra attendance but, of course, pupils who do not attend regularly have obviously opted out. "

Unsurprisingly, the number of free school meals was an even more important predictor of GCSE performance in the 69 schools, which all subscribe to the foundation's results analysis service, QUASE (Quantitative Analysis for Self-Evaluation). "It seems that for every 10 per cent increase in the number of free meals in a school, the average total GCSE score will be reduced by 1.8 grade points," Ian Schagen said.

The average pupil score in the schools studied was 31 points (grade A is 7 points, B 6, etc) but Asian and Chinese pupils are outscoring their white and black classmates. They are achieving three GCSE points more than might be anticipated from their performance in Year 6 tests and this may be partly because their attendance record is also 6 per cent better than their white classmates'.

Schagen's analysis has also provided some ammunition for sceptics unimpressed by recent improvements in GCSE performance. Though overall GCSE scores improved in the QUASE schools between 1992 and 1994, that may have been largely because pupils were entered for more examinations. "Performance in English, technology, history, geography and economics business studies has declined relative to total scores," Ian Schagen said.

Schagen and QUASE project leader Lesley Saunders emphasise, however, that they have "not come up with the answers to life, the universe and everything". They are, in fact, more interested in the way that their work is helping schools to improve their practice, which is the whole point of the exercise.

In south Bristol, for example, QUASE has enabled a consortia of 16 schools and colleges to identify the most successful subject departments. University researchers subsequently studied these departments and the resulting "good practice" lessons have been disseminated through in-service training courses and a book, Pathways to School Improvement, by Dr Alma Harris and Jen Russ.

Trevor Bailey, deputy headteacher of one of the Bristol schools, St Bernadette RC comprehensive, said that the QUASE service was not cheap - it costs Pounds 500- Pounds 1,200 a year depending on school size and the information required - but it was a powerful analytical tool. QUASE schools receive detailed individual reports including graphs, tables and commentary, plus help with interpreting the data.

"QUASE has caused us to ask 'What is making the difference in those departments that are performing well?'" Trevor Bailey said. "It has encouraged us to monitor children's progress more carefully and provided useful information on pupils' and parents' attitudes. I think we can also use the data to show pupils what they are capable of achieving. If used carefully, it could prove to be a strong motivator."

For further information on QUASE contact Lesley Saunders (01753-574123)

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