The original justification for publishing league tables by the Conservative Government was that they - coupled with pupil-led funding and parental choice - would bring market forces to bear on schools. "Bad" schools (those with low results) would lose pupils and "wither away" unless they improved, while "good" schools would expand, thus raising educational standards overall.
Or so the theory went. However, many in the educational community were strongly critical of this simplistic approach. A key concern was the failure of the league tables to compare "like with like". They presented raw results out of context, with no reference to differences between schools in their intakes. Indeed, research evidence of the strong link between social disadvantage and achievement originally commissioned by Ofsted under its first HMCI was quietly shelved by the last Government.
This year's publication represents some advance on the "raw" league table approach to accountability. The attempt to include a measure of progress and, through the recent benchmarking of results, to take some account of differences between schools in their intakes (through the crude socio- economic disadvantage indicator of eligibility for free school dinners) provides some recognition of the need for contextualisation of the raw GCSE/GNVQ results.
However, it is important to recognise that these additions are very much a first step in the right direction. Considerable further development is needed for all schools to have access to the types of "value-added" measures which have been pioneered around the country by local education authorities as diverse as Birmingham, Lancashire, Shropshire and Suffolk.
We need approaches which are sufficiently sophisticated to provide useful and reliable information. The desire to adopt simple methods of presenting performance data, while understandable, has backfired. This has led to last-minute changes in this year's presentation - only identifying schools which had above-average progress. The expertise to refine school performance measurement has been developed by school effectiveness researchers over more than a quarter of a century and useful methods of presenting complicated information really do exist.
Now that league tables are changing, it is important to evaluate their legacy. Their most damaging consequence has been the demoralisation of schools working in disadvantaged areas, which appear time after time at the bottom of the grade rankings. This bad publicity and the public "naming and shaming" has had a negative impact on teacher morale and recruitment. Schools in disadvantaged areas commonly find it more difficult to attract and retain experienced staff which makes the task of school improvement all the more difficult.
The use of raw results for public accountability has tempted some schools to change the balance of their pupil intake. To put it bluntly, schools which recruit higher numbers of middle-class girls have an advantage in the raw league table stakes. A number of local authorities have reported widening differences in the pupil intakes of their secondary schools. There is worrying evidence the league-table mentality can encourage schools to target attention on those most able to boost their position - borderline D/C candidates. There is a real danger that those not seen as capable of five A* to C grades may be labelled as failures early in their school careers and that particular pupils (working-class boys and some ethnic groups) are adversely affected.
Nonetheless, some positive developments have emerged, although I do not believe they compensate for the negative impact on morale and recruitment, or danger of labelling some pupils. In most schools senior staff have become much more aware of the uses and the limitations of performance information. Internal variations in the results of different departments or core curriculum areas have been put under the spotlight and examination entry given a higher priority. Systems for tracking progress, target setting, and the involvement of pupils and parents in the process are becoming commonplace. Some schools have used the experience to raise expectations and examine equity issues.
We cannot go back to the innocence of the pre-league table era but it is important to learn from the experience. My hope for the 21st century is that people will become increasingly aware of both the uses and the limitations of different kinds of information. I hope the challenges faced by some schools, especially those serving disadvantaged communities, will be recognised and that more attention will be paid to ways of promoting progress for all pupils.
Dr Pam Sammons is a Reader in Education and Associate Director of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre at the Institute of Education in London. She is writing in her personal capacityReuse content