Leagues Tables are bad, not good.

I like Michael Gove.

I like his ambition and elegant enthusiasm for our education system. I like his story and I like his eloquence. I like most of his ideas. He has a vision for an ideal education system that I mainly agree with.

Unfortunately I think that some of things he is doing, and some of the things he is letting happen are going to take our education system further from this ideal. Further away, not closer.

League Tables are one of those things.

In today’s speech I found myself almost cheering at some of the paragraphs. Fairer exams, external invigilation, education for education’s sake… Yes, yes, yes I was saying. As I wrote recently, I am convinced that we have been over-supporting children in assessments at all levels, because of a tendency to ‘game the system’ – a concept that Michael Gove refers to later in his speech and is well explained by both David Weston’s post and Owen Elton’s post on the subject. You can also go to Scenes from the Battleground to find a almost running commentary on the GCSE English Fiasco and how it relates to this situation of ‘gaming’, or as @oldandrewuk would say, ‘cheating’.

However I would like to take Michael Gove to task about his section on league tables. He is either wrong, or lying about them.

He starts by asserting “In the past, before the clarifying honesty of league tables, schools were judged on hearsay and prejudice.” No. In the past, schools were judged by a parental visit, where parents, not knowing much about their local schools would visit a few, get a feel for the place and assess whether the place would suit their beloved child. As myself and all of the above writers have written, the system is being at best ‘gamed’ and at worst cheated. The league tables are not honest. They might be, one day in the future, but right now they are not. League Tables are a judge of how well a school plays the system.

Then, he goes on to tell us that there are some schools that, according to these clarifyingly honest league tables, are outperforming others, despite having a challenging intake. That’s true, there are some like that. But in those areas, there are still a small percentage of parents who are passionate for their children to succeed at education. League Tables, not the school visit, become the prime indicator for these parents, which means that the parents with most ambition for their children send their children to the school that is highest up the league table – they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I work in such a school and know that some parents have sent their children here over a school that may be closer to them because my school is higher up the league table.

But let’s assume for a minute that our league tables are completely fair and honest. Do they still work as a judge of a school? Do they work in football, or will there be some teams who are always near the bottom, and some near the top? In football it depends on money, mainly. Throw a lot of money at a club and you’re likely to move up the league table – it doesn’t always work – there have been some almighty failures in football, but it mainly does.

is the same true for schools?

Well yes. A school only makes up 20% of the achievement of a student – the other 80% is down to social background.

Most school effectiveness studies show that student background rather than schools can explain 80% or more of student achievement. (Silins and Mulford 2002: 561)

So what is this? Are we really saying that schools don’t make much difference?

Although good schools make a difference, the biggest influence on educational attainment, how well a child performs in school and later in higher education, is family background. (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009:103)

It seems that way. And if that is true, then even an accurate league table is only measuring the educational attainment of that community, not the school itself. And if the consequence of a league table is to move aspirational families to schools which are higher up it, then do we need them? Shouldn’t we find a more accurate way of judging schools? We have a perfectly good one in Ofsted already. Ofsted and parental visits are a more accurate way of judging our schools.

I would not abolish league tables completely however. I would produce one for each community – so one league table might cover the outcomes of twenty schools. That would be an interesting way of making system wide improvements and putting social interventions in that make a difference to education.

I’m all for change and I’m with Michael Gove that we need to change some key things in our education system. League tables, however are one of the things that inhibit change. They do not go hand in hand with a more rigorous exam system – the rigorous exam system should be there to reward or deny the individual students. Ofsted and parents should judge schools.

3 thoughts on “Leagues Tables are bad, not good.”

  1. Interesting – I agree with you re gaming league tables. However, I don’t see why OFSTED is less prone to gaming given importance of results which can be manipulated as you show above and other equally dodgy tactics (I heard this week about yet another school shipping off worst kids on inspection day!). Research shows that local knowledge is the most important factor in choosing schools (see http://www.marketingadviceforschools.com/3/post/2012/09/the-one-research-report-you-need-to-read.html) for example.
    Schools should focus on communicating why they are best to parents with the sort of evidence that parents really want – how would THEIR child flourish at the school?

    1. Thanks for the comment – I’m sure Ofsted can be duped, but because it’s real people doing the inspecting, I should think it’s harder, although that would depend on the quality of the inspector I guess. I never tried to do such a thing myself, obviously.

      Schools do need to become better at communicating to their community about what they’re good at it, but a lot of headteachers are reluctant to engage in the obvious social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

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