First Ranking of Schools Stirs Up the English

Helen Jarvis, head teacher of Threshfield Primary School in rural north Yorkshire, admits to being "rather proud" of her 84 students. In fact, she is over the moon.

In England's first public ranking of state-funded grade schools, Threshfield was in the top 15 - worthy of a "gold star" - based on controversial testing of students nationwide. Students at the Anglican-run school achieved a perfect score in the national exam.

The ranking of schools, known as "league tables," and the standardized testing of primary school students, are an attempt by the Conservative-led government to boost educational standards. They are also aimed at giving parents a better idea of how schools (and their teachers) are performing.

One of the surprising results of the 14,500-school "snapshot" survey was that two-thirds of the top 100 schools are church run, like Threshfield.

The examinations, taken by 600,000 11-year-olds, focused on the traditional "three R's" - reading, writing, and arithmetic. For Mrs. Jarvis, the achievement of her school is the result of an approach to teaching that, she says, puts "a spirit of competition high on our list of educational priorities."

Unpopular method to some

But the nationwide league table results, which have been printed in newspapers across the country, are under fire from other educators who say they are a poor guide to performance and little help to school children or their parents.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, England's largest teaching union, calls the exercise "a waste of time."

"Parents have more hope of winning the National Lottery than of getting any useful information from these league tables," Mr. McAvoy says.

"Not so," says Gillian Sheppard, Britain's education secretary. Announcing the results of the snapshot survey, she called it "the biggest public information campaign" since World War II.

The league table approach, with each school carefully graded according to its examination results, was launched in the early 1990s. The objective is to measure children's performance all the way through their school years, starting with tests for infants, and ending with pre-university examinations.

Tests at the age of 11, says Mrs. Sheppard, are critical because they are a tool for measuring performance just before pupils are about to leave grade school for the English equivalent of high school.

The government's strategy also imposes a national curriculum, which all schools are required by law to teach their pupils. In the past, different regions in England decided what children should be taught, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to measure pupils' attainments nationwide and to make valid comparisons.

McAvoy and other teachers' representatives have fought league tables and a centrally-imposed curriculum since the ideas were first introduced, arguing that it is not possible to teach to a common standard nationwide and that the needs of each child must be separately catered to. David Hart, chairman of the National Association of Head Teachers, calls the league tables "a confidence trick" and complains that administering the special tests puts an undue burden on teachers and children alike.

When the national curriculum was being introduced five years ago, the opposition Labour Party opposed league tables outright.

But in the last year, Labour has softened its position on the government's education reforms. Labour leader Tony Blair decided to alter his party's stance after Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, issued a report that found unacceptably low standards in half the nation's primary schools.

Welcoming publication of the league tables earlier this month, Mr. Woodhead said: "Parents can now compare one school with another. Headteachers and school governors can reflect on how well their school is doing in the context of the achievement of neighboring schools. Another step has been taken towards the goal of an education service that is genuinely accountable to the public it serves."

'Wall of fame' gets success

Woodhead maintains that, although they must teach a national curriculum, schools are free to adopt their own teaching methods, so long as they work. "If they don't work," he says, "the league tables will make that fact clear to parents everywhere."

At Threshfield School, Jarvis and her small staff allow pupils to compete for places on a "wall of fame" where achievements are pinned up. Jarvis also awards an "extra-mile" shield each week for pupils showing particular merit, in such matters as skill in spelling or mathematics.

Families vie to get places for their children at Threshfield where there is a long waiting list.

McAvoy, however, claims that small church schools and schools in rural areas, such as Threshfield, are better placed to do well than their counterparts in inner-city areas where classes tend to be larger and where children with special needs are more numerous.

Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett agrees.

He claims the government's nationwide league tables are "flawed," because they do not "compare like with like."

But according to Woodhead, closer comparison of schools' performance can yield "extremely useful information."

"Schools serving very similar communities, and resourced in much the same way, are achieving very different results for their pupils," Woodhead notes.

"If one school can do it, why not others?" he says.

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