The league tables must be fairer

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The Independent Online

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, gave a glowing tribute to Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, when she heard about his retirement. He invariably gave sound advice, she said. Less than 24 hours later, Professor Brighouse – who, on the same day, was described as "inspirational" in an Ofsted report on Birmingham's schools – was giving the Government the benefit of some forthright advice at a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts. Calling for the scrapping of primary school league tables as currently constituted, he said they should be replaced by a ratings system, which would take account of other aspects of a primary school as well as simply the three Rs.

The obsession with how primary schools do in tests for 11-year-olds in maths, English and science has had the effect of demotivating children, according to Professor Brighouse. In addition, there is a danger of schools concentrating on those pupils who can just make the required standard with a great dealt of effort. That would thereby give the schools a good showing in the league tables. And it might happen at the expense of those who are obviously struggling.

A ratings system has some merit in counteracting these pitfalls. It could take into account a school's social background – possibly by measuring the improvement in pupil performance between the baseline assessments taken on entry into the schools and the national curriculum tests when they are about to leave. It should be remembered, too, that when Labour came to power in 1997 it had not intended to publish primary performance tables. It was only pressure from certain sections of the press that forced it into a U-turn.

At that stage there was no alternative system on offer. The ratings system would provide such as system and have the added bonus of giving parents, for whom the league tables were mainly devised, a better clue as to which primary school in their neighbourhood had the best teaching standards.

The Secretary of State, having acknowledged that this particular confidante gives her sound advice, should listen to what he has to say.

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