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Were the primary league tables worth the wait?

The sorry story of the 2008 key stage 2 tests continued to be played out with the publication of the primary league tables this week. The tables have been delayed by three months and when they were finally published on Wednesday, there were still 32 schools that had at least one set of results missing.

The headline scores show that 81 per cent of pupils reached the expected level 4 in English and 78 per cent did so in maths. But only 73 per cent reached level 4 in both.

Despite the fiasco of last year's delays in marking and missing papers, there is still some support for the tests - even after last week's announcement by the NUT and the NAHT that they would boycott them in 2010.

Helen Ward and William Stewart report on some of the top-performing schools

Errors put us top of the CVA table

Huddersfield headteacher Tony Parker has hit out at an "unreliable" system that has wrongly named his school as having the best national results for contextual value added (CVA). This score aims to measure the extent to which a school helps its pupils make progress.

Mr Parker, head of St Joseph's Catholic Primary, said: "There was a clerical error made when the key stage 1 results were input five years ago. As soon as we were aware we told all the official people, but nothing changed.

"The contextual value added score of 104.5 is a nonsense. We are very good, but not that good. Last year our CVA was 102.1 and if it was accurate it would be around 102 again."

He is also angry at marking mix-ups last year that mean the school's absolute scores are higher than they appear in the table.

He said: "I have no confidence in the system. If I don't believe the figures my school gets, how many other figures can we believe? I hope this is resolved in the right way, and that way is to stop publication of the league tables. We do alright, but in each authority there are schools at the bottom each year who are working their socks off and all they get is a kick in the teeth."

There were unprecedented delays in marking and returning papers to schools last year, under new firm ETS. Appeals jumped, with almost six times as many primaries asking for reviews of English marking as in 2007.

Two of the pupils at St Joseph's have been officially recorded as absent in English, despite the papers being marked and returned to the school. The maths paper of a third pupil went missing.

Mr Parker said all three children were at level 4 and that if their scores were included, the school's English and maths results would both be 89 per cent, instead of 83 per cent for English and 86 per cent for maths.

Success stories

Teaching thinking skills and paying close attention to progress has helped pupils at Hall Meadow Primary, Kettering, reach the top of the primary school league table, said headteacher Lorraine Cullen.

All Year 6 pupils at both Hall Meadow and Combe CofE Primary School, Witney, Oxfordshire, reached the higher level 5 in maths and science and 93 per cent did so in English.

Mrs Cullen said: "I have very good teachers and we keep a focus on pupil progress so if there are difficulties the support is put in.

"We do have a very varied curriculum, not just the national curriculum, but a lot of stuff to do with approaches to learning, attitudes and personal development."

Hall Meadow is a new school which has been growing, so there were half as many pupils in Year 6 in 2008 as there are now. Mrs Cullen said: "We have been in the top 20 schools in the country for the last three years and we would envisage that going on in future."

Combe CofE primary has topped the tables several times. Wendy Foster took over as headteacher in September. She credited the previous head, Barbara Jones, and said that the results were due to hard work, high expectations and preparation.

Most improved worry about pressure

The heads of the two most improved primaries in the country are both concerned about the pressure put on pupils by national tests.

Sue Humphries is head of St John's CE Primary, Warminster, which has improved its results each of the last three years to a point where every single pupil achieved the expected level in maths, English and science.

The perfect aggregate of 300 points achieved last year puts it on top of the most improved table, since in 2005 the school only achieved 120.

But despite the success of her "unremitting drive for improvement", Mrs Humphries said she thought Sats could put too much pressure on teachers and pupils.

"I don't believe the tests are the only measure of a school's effectiveness," she said. "They measure what's easy to measure, rather than what's valuable."

Robert Trawford, head of Walsall Wood Primary School, Walsall, the next most improved school, also worries about the pressure they create. But despite being a National Association of Head Teachers member, he has major reservations about any possible boycott of Sats.

"I believe the community you are part of has to have some way of judging whether you are an effective school or not," he said.

Unless a suitable alternative for giving parents information can be found, he thinks the tests should stay.

They have worked well in communicating the success of Walsall Wood to local families, with pupil numbers doubling as test results shot up.

Three months after Mr Trawford arrived at the school in 2004, it narrowly escaped being placed in special measures.

It never looked back and has increased its aggregate tests point score from 120 in 2005 to 288 last year.

"We have worked very hard with our team," he said. "We start off with speaking and listening skills first and make sure all our children are good readers and writers before they have left reception."

"The bottom line is the quality of teaching and learning. I know that every one of my teachers is a good teacher and quite a few are outstanding."

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