Weighting for special needs alters rankings

The ranking of the worst-performing education authorities in the primary league tables would improve dramatically if the Government took into account its own estimates of social deprivation and special educational needs, it was claimed this week.

The Association of London Government has drawn up alternative primary league tables using the Additional Education Needs Index, which the Government uses to calculate the amount each authority needs for its education budget.

The London borough of Southwark, for instance, would move from a depressing 109th to a respectable 33rd. Islington leaps from 101st to 21st, Camden from 71st to fourth and the beleaguered Calderdale moves up from 59th to 48th. There is a corresponding drop in ranking for the apparently successful authorities, though the relegations are not as dramatic as the promotions: West Sussex drops from 33rd to 62nd, Hampshire from 32nd to 51st, and Buckinghamshire from 27th to 53rd.

The alternative tables take account of factors such as the proportion of single-parent and non-English speaking households and the percentage on income support or receiving free school meals. The rankings are based on a computer-prediction of what each authority should achieve given its levels of deprivation; the amount by which it exceeds or falls short of the prediction determines its listing.

Sheila Knight, chair of the ALG, said that all this shows "how meaningless it is for the Government to publish raw results". She added that while inner London boroughs did particularly poorly on English assessments, this might be because more than a third of pupils in inner London are learning English as their second language.

The ALG has also analysed the top 20 primary schools. Apart from finding that none was in an inner-city area, only two had class sizes of more than 20 pupils. Classes of 11, 12 and 18 were typical.

Looking at 13 inner-London authorities, the ALG found 53 per cent of primary pupils came from ethnic minorities and one in three had English as a second language. Almost half the pupils in inner London are eligible for free school meals. "How can you really expect them to compete with schools in Surrey?" asked the ALG's education spokesman, Chris Waterman.

Another problem is that while Government tables include a figure for the percentage of children in the relevant year group absent at the time of the tests and the tiny number to whom the national curriculum does not apply because they have a learning difficulty, the figures given for special needs - with or without a statement -are for the whole school, not the year group taking the tests at 11. For example, in one 188-pupil primary school in the London borough of Camden, 56 pupils have special needs. Twenty-nine took the tests in maths, English and science, but there is no indication of how many special needs pupils were in that year group.

The percentage of pupils with special needs is likely to be much higher than the figures in the tables, said one chief education officer, because the procedure for "disapplying" the national curriculum from pupils is cumbersome and very few schools do it. Nor does having English as a second language count as a special need.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The tables are useless when it comes to trying to define special needs, because the numbers of pupils with special needs are calculated on the entire school population. This is less than helpful for parents."

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