For better or worse, league tables shape our education system. Those who argue for better, speak of transparency and choice. Those who argue for worse, speak of the distorting effects of narrow quantitative measures.
One aspect of the tables that is clear, however, is that, to date, they have belonged to government. They are imposed upon schools in order to direct and shape their behaviour. The stakes attached to performance in the tables are high, make or break in many instances.
The effect of these incentives has been embraced by politicians in recent years, using the tables to implement specific policy objectives.
On the one hand, politicians praise autonomy, courage and independence; on the other, you lose your job unless you follow the dictates of the tables. We have seen this with the EBacc. We have seen it with the exclusion of IGCSEs. And we have seen it with first entry rather than best entry. All at very short notice.
We badly need to prioritise transparency and reduce distortion. One way of doing this – not without risk – is to take back ownership of the performance tables.
What if the tables were designed, published and owned by the profession itself? They could be made more stable and predictable, they could measure more of what matters, they could even be published before the government’s own data – thus setting the agenda.
This is the motivation behind an alliance of four organisations: United Learning, PiXL and the two leadership unions, the Association of School and College Leaders and ourselves, who together have created a system and framework for school-led performance tables.
These will be published for the first time in the autumn term. More than 500 schools are already registered. And if you want to be part of taking back ownership of performance, you can find out more online (see further information).
The initial trigger for these alternative tables was the decision to cease recognising a student’s best GCSE entry and only record their first entry. This seems to violate the autonomy and professional discretion of schools. The alternative tables will record the best entry for each exam.
This is the first step. In future years, the tables can become more subtle and sophisticated, they could even include non-exam based measures of success. In the long term they mark a profound shift in the ownership of data and standards, putting the profession in the lead.
I mentioned earlier that this was not without risk. Taking on the tables concedes that there is a role for transparency and data in the evaluation of schools. Those who feel that what matters can never be quantified or that it is invidious to compare schools, would see this as a step too far.
I think, however, that it is not data that is dangerous, nor the transparency of data, but the stakes attached to it and the uses made of it. If the profession wants to take ownership of the education system, it will need a transparent relationship with parents and the public. Otherwise, politicians will always be able to step in and mediate that relationship: a “secret garden” only allows political weeds to flourish.
In the modern world, even skilled professionals are not automatically granted trust, it has to be earned. Our mandate to lead therefore depends on openness and honesty, not isolation. Publishing such tables, if done properly and honestly, will be part of creating that mandate.
Further informationFor more information and to get your school involved in the school-led performance tables, visit www.schoolperformancetables.org.uk
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk