When will we axe the school league tables?


There is no place in a 21st century education system for the publication of unintelligent, misleading and devastating school league tables, argues SecEd editor Pete Henshaw.

Once again our national newspapers were populated with details of the annual secondary school league tables this week.

The pointless practice of publishing rankings in which individual schools are pitched against one another no matter what their location or circumstance continues, despite it being of no use to school improvement, the development of teaching and learning, or anything else of any importance.

The national press delights in bringing us news about the worst-performing schools and how terrible they are while championing the best schools where every child attained the government’s benchmark of five A* to C GCSEs including English and maths.

I am not arguing that underachieving schools should be excused or that success in examinations should not be celebrated, but this unintelligent commentary on our national school system does nothing to improve school standards and is purely designed to sell newspapers to terrified middle England parents.

Indeed, England remains the only country in the developed world to continue with such an arbitrary practice of school accountability. If you ask any of the nations at the top of the international rankings, including all of Michael Gove’s favourites, they will explain that league tables play no part in their school improvement strategies.

I despair as every year the government serves up the GCSE statistics on a plate for newspapers and national media to rank and list with no thought given to the nuances of school performance or circumstance.

And schools every year face the devastating effects should they slip down the league table to any degree. The terrible local press coverage, with reports again being written by journalists who do not understand education but certainly understand what the over the top headlines will do for sales figures.

National rankings of schools have no impact on school improvement. Not only are the benchmarks we employ wrong (the use of a C grade or above as the definition of success or failure is an antiquated view of achievement which must go), but there is no point, ever, in comparing a school in rural Cornwall to another in inner city Manchester in such an unintelligent way.

Of course, national GCSE figures are of use to help us to spot important trends of attainment among key groups. For example, it is useful to know that overall 58.8 per cent of state school pupils achieved the benchmark (up from 58.2 per cent last year). Despite the English debacle, schools have delivered yet again and results are going up.

More interesting to me are the stats on the achievements of important groups, such as those with SEN – a total of 22.4 per cent of students with SEN achieved the benchmark, compared to 69.2 per cent of those without SEN.

Stats like these are important because they highlight progress or issues in key areas. For example, the achievement gap between SEN and non-SEN, is 46.8 per cent – 0.6 per cent smaller than last year, but 2.2 per cent larger than in 2007/08. Why is this? This is an area for focus in the coming months I would suggest. And indeed the fall in achievement among deaf children is something we tackle in an article this week.

So publish the national headlines, but please can we stop facilitating the ranking of individual schools? We have Ofsted (whatever you may think of them) to ensure that standards are being met – we don’t need national rankings.

Of course, schools need to publish their results locally for prospective parents to compare and contrast – although most would-be parents tend to discuss a school’s results alongside other vital issues such as pastoral care, curriculum breadth and extra-curricular opportunities (making national tables even more pointless).

League tables are nothing more than sales tools for desperate newspapers and the time has come for the government to stop helping so ardently in their compilation.


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