Why it's time to drop league tables

If schools are to form federations and co-operate with each other, the days of competition must be numbered, writes John Dunford
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The Independent Online

Estelle Morris wants to increase collaboration between schools. The Education Bill includes a clause enabling schools to form federations under a single governing body. Her speeches to the North of England Conference last week, and the Social Market Foundation in December, proposed that head teachers should be able to lead more than one school. Taken together with her ideas on remodelling the teaching profession, the school of the future is certainly going to look different from the present model, the structure of which has changed little over the past generation.

Collaboration and federation will not happen easily in the present climate. Too many of the regulations governing schools – open enrolment, parental preference, funding – invite schools to compete with each other. If the Secretary of State's vision is to become reality, much of this will have to change and many fundamental questions will have to be answered. We shall need to move quickly away from the culture of competition that has been imposed on schools for the last 20 years, draining school resources and head teachers' energy in marketing ploys, towards a culture of collaboration in which schools are encouraged to work together for the benefit of all. In this more co-operative climate, schools of the future will move naturally towards federation, forming learning centres for their local communities. Strategic planning, staff, ICT resources and facilities will be shared. Crucial decisions will be made collectively.

It follows from this that schools will have to become accountable for their performance as a group, not as individual institutions. The days are numbered for league tables. The November ritual of compiling tables of school performance will disappear and be replaced by value-added tables of performance by each community, or federation, of schools and colleges.

A government that encourages greater collaboration between institutions cannot simultaneously publish league tables of individual school performance that set school against school. No longer must we have to endure the contradictions of officially produced league tables, which produce perverse incentives for schools to improve at the expense of their neighbours. We must move away from the crazy situation in which one government policy – league tables – makes many other policies more difficult, or even impossible, to operate successfully. Pupil admissions, exclusions, special educational needs, specialist status, and much more, would be treated very differently if the performance of groups of schools, instead of separate institutions, were published. Collaboration will become the norm, instead of the exception. Social inclusion will be higher up on the agenda, to the benefit of society as a whole.

At present, league tables act as an incentive to schools to enhance their reputation by changing their admissions policies to favour applications from more intelligent children. They encourage schools to exclude poorly performing pupils. They depress the position of schools that are good at educating children with special needs. They give a further advantage to schools that are better funded, resourced and staffed. If performance information related to groups of schools, all these perverse incentives would be removed at a stroke, because it would be in the interest of every school in the group for all the local schools to perform well.

There will be no need for special pots of funding to be created to encourage collaboration between grammar and secondary-modern schools, because schools of both types will want the other schools in their federation to do well. If independent schools were also included in the groups, state/independent school partnerships would flourish as never before.

Other problems will be easier to solve, too. Teacher recruitment will be carried out collaboratively and schools with teacher shortages will no longer be tempted to poach good teachers from their neighbours. The Government's policy of inclusion, which is severely hampered by the league tables, will be advanced on many fronts.

The new emphasis on the 14-19 age group, which may hit difficulties in many parts of the country where 16 is the age of transfer between school and college, will be implemented more smoothly, as the performance of the college and its local schools will be analysed together, not separately.

League tables were the brainchild of a Tory government that believed in the power of the market to drive up standards. There is a sharp division of view on whether they have been a force for good or ill.

Estelle Morris has articulated ideas that set out a vision for the future of schools and a challenge to all on how we establish the institutions that will turn vision into reality. In their current form, league tables will act as a major impediment to change and must be abolished altogether or re-cast to encourage collaboration.

The writer is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association