Whatever happens at the next election, schools will be subject to performance tables. Labour is proposing to grade schools according not only to their exam results, but also their wider extra-curricular activities and what parents think about them, with a new report card. Yesterday, the shadow schools secretary Michael Gove proposed that the existing tables be skewed so that schools get more marks for physics and no marks for vocational subjects.
Gove seemed to confuse several things in his remarks on league tables, and his attempt to suggest 'all was awful' drove him into the realms of hyperbole. First, he ignored the fact government has already changed the 5A-C benchmark by focusing on those schools that achieve the benchmark including English and Maths. That has changed the rankings considerably. Second, he ignored the fact that there is already a GCSE points score in the tables, though only the Guardian uses it for its rankings. Newspapers compile league tables, government provides the information. And third, he ignores the changes to A-levels that will mean tougher exams and more open-ended questions next year. These were part of a package introduced by Alan Johnson and Tony Blair.
That said, Gove makes a reasonable point when he argues the importance of international rankings, though he ignores those tables where England has done better. And there is a perfectly good case for giving schools an incentive to sit A-level students in tougher subjects like physics by giving them extra credit in point scores for those subjects. I also agree with the idea of having league tables based on university success rates, something the Sutton Trust has proposed.
However, the idea that schools should get no credit in mainstream league tables for vocational qualifications is wrong-headed and dangerous. Some such courses were over-credited at GCSE in the past, but that shouldn't prevent schools being recognised when they help practically-oriented students to do well. Not every pupil will be going to university, let alone Oxford or Cambridge; many may want to go on to apprenticeships or vocational degrees. And such courses often have a very good employment record. Of course, the qualifications should be rigorous, and any credits appropriate. There must be a place for both the academic and vocational. But if schools are not incentivised to guide pupils towards the most appropriate courses for them, we will end up with students given advice to take academic options as inappropriate as the advice being given to some academically able students to steer away from hard academic subjects.
This post also features on the Public Finance blog.