December 13

League tables and the illusion of Parent Power

It is argued that the aim of the annual publication of the 'Parent Power' league tables in the Sunday Times is to provide parents with an informed choice. Armed with a rank order based on percentages of A*-A, SATs scores, choices can be made for secondary and primary school based on cold hard evidence. Well, this is partially true. League tables have utility, they tell you the grades achieved by students in a school in a certain year in public examinations. Sometimes, they even refer to the previous year’s results so that you can gauge year-on-year progress. It is a great celebration of a really impressive achievement of many students and the hard work of teachers in schools.

Unfortunately, that is about all you can tell from League Tables. Suggesting that this limited array of information puts ‘power’ in the hands of parents is a little misleading as it is really just presenting some of the information as if it were all of the information. This is a classic case of ‘valuing what we can measure’ as opposed to measuring what we value.

Speaking to most parents, all the qualities they really truly value in a school are not visible in these kind of league tables. As a teacher, I have taught in schools at the very top of the league tables, but also those not at the top. All these schools were, and are, great schools. A more sophisticated judgement is needed.

Absolute measures, such as percentages of A*, do not demonstrate the progress made by students as they have moved through school. A highly selective school may have a predominance of students whose baselining testing indicates that they are already highly likely to achieve A*s when they arrive in Year 7. It is extremely hard for any school to ‘add value’ in this situation, although of course, students still have to be well taught to reach their predicted A*. In a school with a wider range of abilities, however, a student may arrive in Year 7 with a baseline prediction of a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ but eventually achieve an ‘A’. This grade is not as seemingly impressive as the A*, but the rate of progress and ‘value-added’ is extremely impressive. Great schools work to help every student flourish and aim high, but unfortunately that cannot be reflected in a league table such as ‘Parent Power’. Arguably, you learn more about the selectivity of the admissions process than the effectiveness of the school when only considering outcomes without context. Recently St Olave’s Grammar in Kent came under fire for its policy to ask ‘failing’ Year 12 students to leave the school mid-way through their A-levels in the interests of preserving league table dominance. If a league table place can only be preserved by ruthless exclusion, not inspiration and great teaching, something is going seriously wrong; the student is no longer at the heart of the school. To quote Margaret Attwood: “context is all.”

The plethora and complexity of different testing regimes has also muddied the waters. If a Junior School, such as my own, chooses not to subject 11 year-olds to SAT tests, they simply do not appear in the Primary tables at all, even though the education they are offering is absolutely superb. The impossibility of comparison within a jungle of qualifications (IGCSE, GCSE, Grade 9 with A*, A-level with IB) exacerbates this muddiness no end.

This is only to focus on public examinations, but a great education is about so much more. Sending students out into the world with a clutch of exam certificates and nothing else, is not a great education; they will falter at the first real hurdle. Students need to be confident networking and speaking to people from all different walks of life; they need to present publicly; they need to be resilient to life’s challenges; they need to be creative problem solvers and team-players, they need confidence. All this comes from a genuinely balanced and engaging curriculum and co-curriculum. These are not visible in league tables.

Lastly, the least measurable quality of a great school, but probably the most important, is its values and ethos. Is it a place that a student can genuinely discover their own personal qualities, feel valued and build positive and genuine relationships with peers and adults? Can they be happy and develop their appreciation of non-material aspects of life? It is totally impossible to measure these qualities of a school, but they can make or break a student’s experience. This can only be appreciated in person, through absorbing the atmosphere and sense of community in a school, not through the centre pages of a weekend supplement.

So keep the tables in their place: a tiny part of a very big story.

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