Thursday, 10 January 2008

The case for league tables

I have a piece in today's Independent defending league tables (it is not online):

Since their introduction in the early Nineties, the teaching unions have bemoaned the ‘damaging impact’ of school league tables. But, as the clamour for their abolition grows again, the unions’ case is weaker than ever.

They initially complained that an absence of context made the tables unreliable. Yet, as the Government added improvement indices, average point scores and an assessment of the value added by individual schools, they were not appeased.

All of which suggests that the real reason they don’t want parents and the public to have comparative information about schools is that they have something to hide.

Yet, tables have been a force for good. They have helped to drive up standards, alongside inspections and national testing. When the first primary results were
published school-by-school in 1995 they exposed those that were coasting, encouraging real improvement in the 3Rs.

The sophistication of today’s data now means that schools’ performance is compared with the achievement of similar schools. Fischer family trust and value added data enable teachers to set challenging but realistic goals for every pupil in all their subjects. The best schools involve parents in this process.

Tables encourage scrutiny and openness. If this information were not public, the pressure to succeed would be weakened. Failings would not only be hidden from parents and the wider community, but from many school governors.

Tables can also support public policy goals with minimal bureaucracy. Last week, Lord Adonis announced that information on pupils achieving level 6 and 7 in the Key Stage 3 tests would be published to encourage attention for gifted and talented students. Ruth Kelly’s decision as education secretary to include English and Maths scores in the preferred GCSE measure has rightly focused more attention to the basics.

And tables are also important in a culture of increasing freedom of information. Teachers, who are public servants, should be so accountable. We rightly expect government and its agencies to publish increasing amounts of information about their workings. It would be intolerable to hold publicly-funded schools to a lower

Equally, it is unrealistic to expect that newspapers should not publish the results. Most now celebrate fast improvers as much as they highlight the lowest achievers. Rather than trying to abolish the tables, their union critics should be encouraging their members to make the most of the wealth of information they contain to improve standards for every child.

And, for those, including the BBC, who report that a fifth of schools are still failing to meet Gordon Brown's challenging target that 30% of pupils in every school should get five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, two points.

1. Given that the target was set after pupils sat the exams on which schools are being judged for today's league tables, how can they still be failing to meet a target that they didn't then have?

2. By the same token, half of schools missed this target in 1997. Why is that not reported?


Mike Ion said...


I agree with most - but not all of what you have writte. If we do have to have school results published (sadly I think this is a genie that is well and truly out of the bottle), can we at least agree on the format in which these results should be published? If we have to have school results published nationally, and therefore if we have to have league tables of schools, let us use one main data set and let it be CVA. Why? Because raw results tell you little about how good a school is at its core function: teaching and learning. Raw results simply tell you about the prior attainment of the pupils on entry. In contrast, CVA data looks at the progress that the pupils make while in the school - in other words, it tells you the difference the school has made to the life chances of a particular cohort of children.

The truth is that a national league table of CVA school results would be a much better indication of teaching quality than the old-fashioned - and often misleading - league tables that only give raw percentages of GCSE passes. The present league tables inevitably puts schools in leafy suburbs at the top and struggling inner-city ones at the bottom.

The challenge is to persuade a cynical media, as well as parents and the general public, that CVA is the real measure of school effectiveness.

Red Maria said...

Mike Ion's words about school league tables "sadly a genie well and truly out of the bottle" are revealing of his attitude to them and education in general. He doesn't like league tables, is distinctly complacent about comprehensive schools which he has described as "frequently excellent" elswhere (a judgement which would cause raised eyebrows among not a few parents) and resents questions being asked about teachers' performance by uppity parents.

Hence his championing of the softer CVA type of league table - they afford plenty of excuses for underperformance, a bad habit Ion clearly can't wean himself from as he immediately launches into the familiar litany as though repetition makes them any more convincing. They don't.
The truth, in fact, is that public examinations are universal benchmarks of academic achievement and it is these which are used by universities, colleges and employers in determining indviduals' life chances. Bluntly, there is no CVA on a CV. Likewise, parents aren't interested in indices of mediocrity like CVA which are seem designed more for the benefit of teachers than pupils and parents. As much as anything else, parents are entitled to know about school performance in real, unvarnished terms. There is no good reason for witholding such basic statistics as GCSE and A Level performance from parents. Indeed, the only changes required to league tables are those which would render them more rigorous, that is, mandatory inclusion of Maths and English results.

Also present in Ion's post was, of course, the obligatory peevish reference to the superior performance of schools in - cliche alert! - leafy suburbs. Yet oddly, or perhaps not, Ion reserves his outrage for the league tables which expose such inequalities rather than the shoddy services (sorry, "frequently excellent comprehensives") with which working class parents are fobbed off.

Unfortunately for Ion it is unlikely that the media, parents and general public (the cynics!)will ever be convinced of the unconvincing, (the superiority of CVA over raw data league tables) but will continue to use raw data league tables in demanding higher educational standards. Indeed any attempt to withdraw this information from public view would rightly meet with considerable resistance. Sooner or later, Ion and others of similar views will have to accept that like Canute, any attempt to place themselves obstinately before the tide of greater public openness and accountability is doomed to failure. And that is a good thing.