Exam league tables are essential, says private school head

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Exam league tables are essential for making sure schools are made accountable, the head of the private school with the best GCSE results in the country said today.

Anne Coutts, the headmistress of Headington school in Oxford – a girls’ day and boarding school with 1,000 pupils aged three to 18 – was speaking as many of the country’s leading independent schools staged a fresh boycott of the league tables.

More than 70 schools, including Eton, Winchester and St Paul’s, have refused to supply their results to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) which publishes the tables rather than the Government, claiming the tables misrepresent their performance.

Mrs Coutts, whose pupils all achieved five A*- to C-grade passes and had an average point score of 618.4 – the equivalent of just over 10 A*-grade passes per pupil – said the results should be “celebrated”. She said: “I did not consider not putting them in.

“As a scientist it’s important to measure things, it’s a situation where we need to be held accountable and we should be.

“I think the [league tables] are flawed, they don’t take everything into account and I can understand schools that don’t put results in. It’s not that I think they’re perfect, but it’s what we’ve got.”

The school has ditched maths GCSE in favour of the IGCSE – an international exam based on traditional |O-level lines that eschews coursework. Unlike government league tables, the ISC version includes IGCSE results.

Mrs Coutts, whose school is also offering the International Baccalaureate alongside A-levels for the first time this year, also spoke of her concerns about the flagship A-level exam.

“I have to be honest,” she said. “I don’t think that they distinguish between the good and the excellent candidates at the moment.”

Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul’s in London, said the tables |were a “lie” and “a cancer on the face of education”.

“The real problem with league tables is they compare apples and pears,” he said. “It’s absolutely idiotic to have a highly selective day school compared on the same basis as a comprehensive-entry rural school and seek to claim parity between the two.”

Dr Stephen suggested an alternative in which schools published their exam results online, which would allow parents to access the results of schools in their area easily and study them.

The idea is gaining credibility with Sir Cyril Taylor, a former senior adviser to Conservative and Labour governments for more than two decades, who is backing legislation to force all schools to publish their results online.

Under that plan, schools could also post other information which they considered relevant to parents to help them make a choice.

Sir Cyril said he had discussed the idea with the Conservatives. Michael Gove, the shadow Education Secretary is understood to be sympathetic.

Nationally, the figures from the ISC showed that more than one in four independent school exam candidates gained an A*-grade GCSE – 28.9 per cent compared with 7.1 per cent of all school pupils.

In addition, 93.2 per cent achieved five A*- to C-grade passes including in maths and English – traditionally the benchmark by which schools are measured – compared with 47.6 per cent in all schools last year. This year’s figures are not yet available.

New research just published casts doubt on whether standards in maths have improved, despite a rise in GCSE results over the past two decades. Researchers at King’s College, London, and the University of Durham gave pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 maths tests that were sat by children of the same age 32 years ago.

They found that there was little difference in the results, although today’s pupils performed better with decimals than those from 1977, who were better at fractions.