Newly-created unitary authorities, many of them towns and cities previously controlled by shire councils, have shown big improvements (see table, opposite), often reflecting dynamic new managements with a strong focus on school improvement.
But a sizeable minority of schools continue to struggle, with more than 3,000 out of 19,000 schools recording lower scores across the three core subjects than in 1997. Despite this reservation, the government is now within striking distance of hitting its target of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 in English and 75 per cent in maths by 2002.
This year's results show that 75 per cent reached that level in English (an increase of four percentage points on 1999) and 72 per cent in maths, (a three-point increase). In science, with no government target, 85 per cent of pupils reached the required level.
Many schools in disadvantaged areas have made dramatic strides. Dalton Foljambe junior and infants in Rotherham, which tops the government's list of schools which have shown sustained, year-by-year improvement since 1997, has recorded a staggering five-fold improvement in its aggregate scorefor the three core subjects (see tables opposite).
And at Rolleston junior school and special unit in Leicester, where more than seven per cent of pupils have statements of special need, results have improved more than threefold since 1997 with scores of 83, 93 and 97 per cent respectively for English, maths and science in this year's tests.
While the improvement measure, introduced for the first time last year, has been broadly welcomed as a fairer measure of achievement, more sophisticated value-added tables - which take account of pupils' results at seven - are not likely to be published before 2003.
Though there is widespread support for the value-added approach, academics remain cautious about its usefulness. Dr Mike Threadaway, researcher for the Fischer Family Trust, believes it would be fairer to provide a range of indicators. "I'm not convinced value-added tables are an awful lot better. We should help schools and local authorities make more effective use of school improvement data," he says.
Most local education authorities cite the literacy and numeracy strategies as the most important factor in raising standards. The outer London borough of Barking and Dagenham has made faster progress than any other since 1997, The council's success follows its decision to introduce a special programme for primaries, developed with the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.
Since 1996, its aggregate scores for English, maths and science have risen by 97 points. This compares with a general improvement across England of 60 points. A total of 133 schools achieved the "perfect" aggregate score of 300 this year.