League Tables – a measure of success?
School league tables – or ‘Achievement and Attainment Tables’ as the Department for Education prefers to call them – are the annually published results of public examinations for the previous academic year. To be fair to the government, it is the media that chooses to rank the data based on performance. For nearly ten years, ministers have been trying to add a “fairness” score by contextualising the data and adding information such as the number of pupils receiving the pupil premium, to no avail.
Independent schools also collect relevant value added scores but they are not, to my knowledge, included in any ranking. Statistical uncertainty, particularly in smaller schools, means percentages can vary enormously from year to year as one or two students doing well or badly can swing the overall result. On the whole, all parents, regardless of sector, look at the league tables and make a judgment based on how high up or low down a school appears. Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily the best measure of overall performance.
For parents, all these tables do is tell them how one particular cohort of students performed in one year’s tests. It doesn’t take into account the number taking any particular subject or the perceived difficulty of one subject weighted against another. Performance tables also fail to take account of how academically selective the school – it isn’t difficult to work out that very clever children are likely to do well in academic examinations.
Tables are also ordered differently depending on where you view them and whether they are ranking performance at A-level or GCSE. Some take the percentage of students achieving A/B while others reference those achieving A/A*. All these variables mean that one school can be middle ranking in one table and significantly higher up or lower down in another.
When choosing a school for your child it makes sense to find out about styles and quality of teaching, size of classes, subjects on offer and, most importantly of all the happiness of pupils and staff. These considerations together with details of co-curricular opportunities and the ethos of the school never make it into the league tables – to be honest, I think their inclusion would only make the situation more confusing for parents. Reporting on the number of rugby pitches or swimming pools is not particularly relevant and who is going to check that facilities have not been exaggerated?
The situation certainly isn’t all bad. League tables based on academic attainment do let parents know how selective a school is which could be a deciding factor for some. They also allow readers to compare schools across the sector and provide a benchmark from which to consider academic attainment or selection. When it comes to encouraging healthy competition, I’m more inclined to think they encourage ‘teaching to the test’ which, in my experience, only stifles creative and independent thinking.
If it was up to me, I’d get rid of league tables in a flash. The more difficult question is what I would put in their place. Then as now, I would encourage anyone choosing a school for their child to pay a visit, not just once on open day but several times and be guided by gut instinct. Ask current pupils about school life and what they like most about being there. You know almost instantly whether your child will thrive in the environment and coupled with the pupil’s own view, this should beat the league tables hands down.
Jane Prescott, Headmistress, Portsmouth High School, GDST