Can school league tables ever be intelligent?

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Michael Gove has admitted that league tables rely too much on one measure and focus too much on the C/D borderline. But despite this, he still believes that he can make the tables 'intelligent'. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw says this is misguided.

I make no apologies for jumping on my favourite soap box again – the impact of league tables on England’s education system.

There were some notable comments from education minister Michael Gove this week as part of his wider speech about his unadulterated love of examinations and how the forbidding exam hall is the key to a liberal education agenda (for the details on how he tries to square the circle on that one see the SecEd report). I have left it to the excellent Russell Hobby to address Mr Gove’s exams comments (read to the end of the article referenced above).

Instead, in this piece, I would like to discuss Mr Gove’s comments about the future of league tables, which he made as part of the same speech. He made a number of encouraging statements during his speech as he promised an imminent consultation (the word he used was “soon”) on what a “more intelligent” accountability system should look like. My two particularly refreshing favourites were:

  • “I know that league tables can be corrupted. Too much reliance on one measure as a target … will mean gaming can occur.”

  • “There are still … problems with the concentration all these measures generate on the C/D borderline.”

However, before we pop the champagne corks and celebrate England’s following most other nations in the developed world in shunning arbitrary rankings of schools, it wasn’t as good as all that. Mr Gove also strongly reminded us of his view that league tables provide us with a level of “clarifying honesty” about schools. My heart sank when he said: “We know that the sorting of test results into league tables is (a) progressive development in education.”

He also confirmed his view that modular assessment, coursework and controlled assessment are “subject to gaming” and that terminal exams are the future. So whatever Mr Gove’s reforms of accountability end up looking like, it is clear that league tables are here to stay for England’s schools – and that they will be based on terminal exam results being ranked in some form.

After seven years at SecEd I find myself tired (but not apologetic) of repeating the same arguments against league tables. They corrupt statistics and therefore education because any league table has to be based on one measure more than any other. The government may argue that it has a range of measures in its tables – more than ever in fact – and that it’s the national media which chooses to focus on five A* to C or now the English Baccalaureate – but that is no reason not to do anything about it.

And let’s not forget that political rhetoric has driven the magic C boundary firmly into UK education folklore. I fear that we shall never see it removed; I fear that a D will forever more be seen as a poor grade.

League tables are not intelligent, as Mr Gove admits himself. And while I welcome his appeal for views on how we can change this – I fear this is simply not possible.

I come back to an argument I made in this column in 2006 – we have Ofsted to ensure that our schools are performing. We do not need league tables. They do not reflect the true nature of any school.

Schools can publish their results and figures locally and parents can make their decisions, but there is no need to rank schools nationally. Our system is moving wholly towards an ethos of collaboration but we still insist on pitching schools against one another with this primitive system of measurement.

Despite my years of moaning, however, Mr Gove has made clear – the tables are here to stay. He continues to tread a lone path when compared with education systems across the world. So I suppose we can only hope then that his comments about the C/D borderline lead perhaps to this benchmark at least being scrapped.

This would be a silver lining to having to continue living with league tables – if we stop measuring only Cs and apply benchmarks that actually reward schools for every student’s progression, whether that be from B to A, D to C, or E to D.



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