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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 00:02 GMT
Top head attacks league tables
Elizabeth Phillips
Head of the most improved school, Elizabeth Phillips
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

The head teacher of this year's most improved secondary school in England has attacked the league tables as an unfair way of measuring performance.

Any society which only values pupils who achieve the top grades is in deep trouble

Head teacher Elizabeth Phillips
Elizabeth Phillips, head of St Marylebone Church of England School in Westminster, London, accused the league tables' ranking system of promoting "academic apartheid".

Mrs Phillips's school is in first place in the government's table of schools which have shown the greatest improvement over four years.

An uncompromising pursuer of high standards - "if your aim is excellence you don't give way" - Mrs Phillips's school has risen from 39% of pupils getting GCSE grades A* to C in 1997 to 89% this year.

St Marylebone
In four years St Marylebone has doubled the number of pupils achieving five good GCSEs
This is in an inner-city comprehensive in which 60% of pupils do not have English as a first language, with an intake that includes 60 different nationalities and where 42% are eligible for free school meals.

But despite this achievement, the head robustly criticises a league tables system which she says is "fallacious" in what it claims to represent and misguided in what it is attempting.

Quoting Einstein's comment that you can't count everything that counts, she says that parents should pay greater heed to the overall ethos of a school and achievements outside of the exam room.

"Any society which only values pupils who achieve the top grades is in deep trouble. We can't all reach that level - and if we all did get 100% what kind of measure would that be?"

Artistic development

Instead she says that parents should look for schools which seek to develop the "whole child" and which offer less tangible qualities such as a safe, secure and positive environment.

St Marylebone's progress
Pupils with GCSEs grade A* to C

2000: 89%
1999: 77%
1998: 74%
1997: 39%
As a specialist arts school, St Marylebone places a particular emphasis on music, art, dance and drama, with pupils encouraged to develop their artistic abilities.

Although she says that the school has never made exam marks its focus, there has been a dramatic turnaround in its performance.

In 1997, only 39% of pupils were achieving five or more high grade GCSEs. This year, the figure is 89%, more than double the local average of 36.7% and well above the national average of 49.2%.

The single biggest factor in improving a school is the staff, she says, and to this end she says that heads need to be single-minded and determined in finding and keeping the best teachers.

Once a "critical mass of positiveness" has been established, she says that other factors such as discipline and attendance fall into place - and in the last three years there has not been a single permanent exclusion.

All-girls school

Up until the sixth form, the school is all girls, another factor she believes in pushing up grades, alongside other measures such as smaller classes and setting by ability.

student artwork
Students are encouraged to be artistic
Even though this is an inner-city, multi-cultural comprehensive, drawing its intake from the council estates rather than the well-heeled streets of Westminster, there is a rather old-fashioned, small school atmosphere.

Pupils wear a uniform - with dress codes such as not wearing scarves indoors enforced with a brisk "I can see an outbreak of scarves".

Mrs Phillips says parents want a "disciplined atmosphere" and the ethos of this Church of England school promotes mutual respect between staff and pupils.

Mrs Phillips does not put down her school's success to the government's claims to have increased funding - and she says that the promise of bigger budgets has so far failed to materialise.

But - apart from the extra St Marylebone gets as a specialist school - it has benefited in gaining new equipment and improved premises from central funds.

And as all head teachers, she gives a particularly warm welcome to direct funding, such as announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the pre-Budget report this month, which gives schools a direct cash injection to use on whatever they feel is most urgent.

In terms of what could replace league tables, she suggests that inspections represent a more "level playing field" and are a more useful guide to parents.

Elizabeth Phillips
"League tables are not comparing like with like"
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