Headlines: November 28th, 2003

League tables measuring the performance of state secondary schools in improving the academic achievements of pupils, should take account of their economic, social and cultural backgrounds and of their achievements at earlier stages of their education, according to a report today. The recommendation comes in a report to Parliament by the head of the National Audit Office, Sir John Bourn.The document says that although not all relevant factors can be taken into account, adjusting for the influence of those external factors for which information is available, would provide a more robust and objective assessment of performance in terms of the difference schools make.

The NAO report is based on a study of data for more than a million pupils in more than 3,000 schools who sat their Key Stage 3 tests, GCSEs or GNVQ examinations last year. This shows that the wide variations between the average academic achievements of pupils in different schools at both Stage 3 and GCSE level diminish substantially when the external factors are taken into account. Considerable differences between high and low performing schools still remain but making adjustments for these other factors can lead to a big difference in the performance ranking of schools relative to one another.

The analysis showed there was some link between different types of school and the difference they made to academic achievement. On average selective, specialist, faith, beacon and single sex schools all achieved, to varying degrees, a higher ranking than the average for all schools at either Key Stage 3 or GCSE level or both, although the average differences in performance are small.

Previous academic attainment was the factor that had the strongest association to current achievement. Eligibility for free school meals, which is used as an indicator of deprivation, plays a strong role. The NAO, though, said eligibility for free meals was an imprecise indicator as it did not assess relative economic well-being, or capture other social, cultural and environmental factors that might also have a strong influence on academic achievement.

In addition to urging the Department for Education and Skills to produce performance information taking these extra matters into account, the NAO makes other recommendations. It says the Department should use this adjusted performance information as one tool for assessing school performance and evaluating policies that impact on schools. It also wants the DfES to work with other departments, local authorities and other organisations to explore whether an indicator of deprivation more sophisticated than eligibility for free school meals can be developed, Finally it says schools should have sufficient flexibility in their use of resources to best meet the educational needs of all pupils.