First Ranking of Schools Stirs Up the English

Article excerpt

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. …