Laid bare: The injustice of school league tables

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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This very helpful article shows just how pernicious ignorant use of league tables can be, though we ...

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The inherent unfairness of the DfE’s Progress 8 league tables is revealed by research showing just how much a range of factors affect GCSE outcomes. Pete Henshaw takes a look

Half of the secondary schools judged to be underperforming in England would not fall into this category if league tables took into account pupil backgrounds.

Research from the University of Bristol has shown that once factors known to influence GCSE outcomes – such as deprivation and free school meals (FSM), SEN, and ethnicity – are included in league table calculations there is a dramatic shift for many schools. Indeed, a fifth of England’s secondary schools see their league table position change by 500 places or more; 74 schools move up more than 1,000 places.

The study says that given the impact that pupil background has, the Department for Education (DfE) should consider reforming its league tables and, alongside Ofsted, should place less emphasis on the Progress 8 measure.

The study was commissioned by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which says that many schools in the North are performing “considerably better than the government’s league tables suggest”.

The analysis is based on 2018 Progress 8 data from all 3,165 state secondaries in England. Progress 8 is the headline measure favoured by the DfE as it accounts for pupils’ prior attainment at key stage 2. However, Progress 8 does not take into account other factors shown to have an impact on exam results.

The report shows this impact by breaking down how much better on average each group performs than predicted by key stage 2 scores (expressed by grades per GCSE):

  • Month of birth: August-born pupils make 0.18 grades more progress per subject than their September-born peers.
  • Gender: Girls perform better than predicted (+0.23), boys perform worse (-0.21) – meaning girls make 0.44 grades more progress per subject.
  • SEN: Pupils with Statements (-0.68) and those on SEN Support (-0.43) fare worse than pupils without SEN (+0.08).
  • Ethnicity: Huge variations range from Chinese (+1.06) and Indian (+0.74) to Traveller (-1.07), Roma (-0.74), Black Caribbean (-0.27) and White British (-0.11).
  • FSM: Pupils eligible for FSM (25.5 per cent of all pupils) make 0.52 grades less progress per subject than pupils who are not.
  • Deprivation: Students from the 10 per cent most deprived families underperform against key stage 2 predictions (-0.31), while those from the 10 per cent least deprived score +0.28.

The report states: “Progress 8 effectively punished schools teaching high proportions of disadvantaged pupils for the national underperformance of these groups.

“The results show that schools’ Progress 8 scores, differences in average scores between regions and for different school types all change dramatically once adjustments are made for pupil background. This leads to very different interpretations and conclusions about both individual schools and educational differences.

“Dramatic changes are seen for grammar schools and faith schools whose high average Progress 8 scores reduce substantially once the educationally advantaged nature of their pupils is considered. In contrast, the low average pupil progress seen in sponsored academies improves once the disadvantaged nature of their pupils is recognised.”

The report adds:”Adjusting for pupil background would lead 51 per cent of schools judged ‘underperforming’ under Progress 8 to move up out of this banding.”

In her foreword to the report, Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central and a member of the Education Select Committee, said: “The league tables and data that we use to judge schools are often more a measure of the school’s intake than the quality of teaching, learning and real progress being made in that school. We can see from (the revised rankings) that some schools operating in the most challenging contexts are doing an outstanding job. Other schools that may have previously escaped scrutiny actually require support.”

Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Each year schools can find themselves propelled to the top or condemned to the bottom of a league table based on a single set of results. This is entirely wrong. Performance data should only ever be the starting point in a conversation about school standards and comparing performance of schools serving similar communities would provide a more nuanced view of school effectiveness.”

Revised league tables under the Adjusted Progress 8 measure

Top 10 schools in England (with their original DfE ranking in brackets)

  1. Dixons Trinity Academy, Bradford (3rd)
  2. Harris Academy Battersea, London (14th)
  3. Moseley Park School, Wolverhampton (52nd)
  4. Magna Academy, Bournemouth (25th)
  5. The Steiner Academy, Hereford (4th)
  6. Wembley High Technology College, London (2nd)
  7. Kingswood Academy, Hull (165th)
  8. Ormiston Chadwick Academy, Halton (127th)

Biggest rises in league table position:

  1. The Kingsway Academy, Wirral (up 1,759 to 494th)
  2. Bridge Learning Campus, Bristol (up 1,712 to 837th)
  3. Academy 360, Sunderland (up 1675 to 1,080th)
  4. Outwood Academy Ormesby, Middlesbrough (up 1,640 to 773rd)
  5. Balaam Wood School, Birmingham (up 1,601 to 651st)
  6. West Derby School, Liverpool (up 1,530 to 838th)
  7. Cardinal Heenan Catholic High School, Liverpool (up 1,438 to 839th)
  8. Ridgeway High School, Wirral (up 1,422 to 734th)

Further information

Adjusted Progress 8, Leckie, Prior & Goldstein, University of Bristol, October 2019:

This very helpful article shows just how pernicious ignorant use of league tables can be, though we also need to remember that they were introduced for a variety for purposes, including ensuring that all young people had access to reasonable educational opportunities and there are a sizeable minority of schools where performance, and related opportunities, have rocketed since their introduction. Nor should we accept that the factors listed above should be allowed to determine outcomes. Of course August children show more progress: the experience gap between them and their September-born peers has shrunk, relatively over that time. But if our boys are still underperforming relative to girls, perhaps we need to find out more about why, and whether our systems and curricula are inclusive and equitable. Similarly for some of the other factors listed. We also need to be very aware that correlation is not causation: if, for example, young people have very stressed home lives then of course it is not reasonable to expect them also to perform as well as relatively stress-free peers: they need support and understanding, and it does nothing to help them if their schools are made scapegoats for relatively low performance. As Nick says, performance data should be the start of the conversation - and as a society, we also need to remember that performance is not everything in education.
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