By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
The BBC publishes thousands of pages of tables data
News organisations complain it will be "impossible" for them to produce all their usual secondary school league tables for England next week.
They usually get the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables supplements.
But new restrictions on the release of official statistics have cut this preparation time to 24 hours.
The rules say the public benefit of such prior access must outweigh the resulting detriment to public trust.
The Tories have said the statistics should appear in the normal way.
A spokeswoman from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) said the legislation which underpins the new publication arrangements had been backed by opposition MPs.
"We have arranged for the maximum amount of advanced access to the data that the new law allows us to," she said.
"Ministers and officials will also only see the data 24 hours before it is published by the statisticians."
Although popularly known as "the government's school league tables", the rankings of schools based on their pupils' performance in public exams are produced by the news media.
The government publishes only alphabetical lists and pages of data on every school, which journalists and technicians turn into more digestible formats for parents using what they believe are the key benchmarks.
The fact that the normal arrangements would not apply this year became apparent only this week, as the DCSF fielded increasingly urgent enquiries about when the results would be published.
The change is a result of tighter rules over the release of official statistics.
A statement published on the DCSF website says: "The Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008 that came into force on 1 December 2008 and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics published on 6 January 2009 means the Department must change the arrangements for the release of the two sets of achievement and attainment tables from previous years."
The change comes in the wake of the notorious selective publication of knife crime statistics - for which Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologised to Parliament.
The media have been told they can have the school data on the morning of Wednesday, 14 January for publication at 0930GMT the following day, when the official attainment tables will appear on the DCSF website.
The decision comes after furious but fruitless lobbying behind the scenes.
It is a mark of the incredulity and anger among education correspondents that they have collaborated in getting their organisations to write to the DCSF and the UK Statistics Authority.
A joint letter of complaint to DCSF chief statistician Malcolm Britton has been signed by senior editorial figures at the BBC, national newspapers and the Press Association news agency whose tables are used by numerous regional and local news organisations.
It says: "The timetable needs to be such that we can ensure we have collated the information which is of most interest to parents from the data provided and to carry out the necessary checks that it has been conveyed accurately from disk to supplement and website.
"With less than 24 hours' preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors.
"The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations - to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters - will be thwarted. This is a service which we believe your office also values."
Contingency plans are being made to publish tables in some form, but some special newspaper supplements are being scrapped.
The issue has also been referred to the National Union of Journalists as an attack on journalistic practice.
Shadow Children's Secretary Michael Gove said: "The statistics should be published in the normal way so that there is proper time to provide parents with the information they want.
"The public are sick of government statistics being delayed and manipulated to suit the interests of bureaucrats rather than the people they are supposed to serve."
Usually the primary school tables appear first each year, in December. Those have been pushed back until March by the Sats marking fiasco - which does not affect these secondary tables.
School tables are no longer published in this way for the rest of the UK.
Department for Children, Schools and Families statement:
The Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008 that came into force on 1 December 2008 and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics published on 6 January 2009 means the Department must change the arrangements for the release of the two sets of achievement and attainment tables from previous years.
In line with the Code (Protocol 2: Release Practices) the Tables will be released at 09.30am on Thursday 15 January through the publication of two statistical releases. The tables will be available on the Department's main website in the normal format from that time.
The Department's Head of Profession for Statistics has decided to grant pre-release access to media organisations for a period of 24 hours prior to the publication of the Tables at 09.30am on 15 January. This means the data will be available to accredited media organisations under strict embargo from 09:30am on 14 January solely for the purpose of enabling the media to analyse the Tables for reporting to the public through normal media channels as soon as possible after the formal release.
Joint letter from news organisations:
We are writing to you concerning the publication of the Government's secondary school performance tables next Thursday.
In the past, we have been given a disk containing the results at least seven days prior to publication, which has helped us to produce supplements conveying the information to our readers. These typically run to 16 to 20 pages in national newspapers and on their websites and thousands of pages on the BBC News website and on the Press Association wires, as well as in numerous local newspapers throughout the country.
This year, however, we are to be given less than 24 hours to assemble the information - an impossible timetable.
The timetable needs to be such that we can ensure we have collated the information which is of most interest to parents from the data provided and to carry out the necessary checks that it has been conveyed accurately from disk to supplement and website. With less than 24 hours' preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors.
The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations - to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters - will be thwarted. This is a service which we believe your office also values.
We would urge you therefore to make the information available to media organisations in advance and under embargo as has happened before. It is worth mentioning that there has never been a breach of the embargo or an attempt by government to massage the figures in advance of publication since the performance tables were first introduced.
The letter was also sent to the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar.
In his reply, he says: "While I can understand your frustration with this change in the rules, the Statistics Authority does not have the statutory responsibility for, or power to determine, the rules on pre-release access to statistical information."
He says that is a matter for Parliament.
"I understand that the government will undertake a review of the new pre-release arrangements during the course of the next twelve months, and we will express our considered view at that time when the authority will itself undertake its own review."