Why the league system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
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The Independent Online

Today's league tables make clear one big challenge facing the next government: the need to reform the accountability system for schools.After more than 20 years of league tables, the school system is too compliant and too ready to respond to changes in published performance indicators. And governments are too ready to modify indicators to drive change.

The headline this year may be the unprecedented fall in the attainment measures. The government is right, though: this isn't necessarily the main story, given the changes to the measures themselves. There are new rules about which qualifications count and how much they count for, and this year, only the "first entry" to a qualification counts, even if there was a later, better result.

The effect has been a dramatic shift in the behaviour of schools. The number of early entries has dropped sharply. The number of parallel entries for GCSE and International GCSE has too. The number of young people entered for BTEC qualifications which no longer count fell away to almost nothing. So, while it is possible to create indicators on the same basis as last year, the changes in the way that young people have been entered for exams are so great that it is virtually impossible to make a meaningful comparison.

Admittedly, this may not be much consolation to young people who haven't got the results they hoped for. Some young people who failed English GCSE would have got a C and a place at college had schools approached exam entry as they did last year. If these young people could be identified, they might reasonably ask whether their school's compliance with policy was in their interests – or just another form of "gaming".

But these points do explain why, although fewer people are leaving with good qualifications, it doesn't mean that schools are worse.

League tables were devised as part of John Major's citizen's charter – an attempt to give citizens better information about public services. Their first incarnation was crude, but the aim – to help people to make better informed choices – was clear. More recently, successive governments have moved away from that original aim and used the tables as a policy implementation tool. Sometimes with dramatic results.

The inclusion of English and maths in the headline measure 10 years ago sharply increased the focus on those subjects. The introduction of the so-called "English Baccalaureate" measure successfully increased entry to more academic subjects – but with the unintended consequence that some children were taken off courses that they had spent weeks studying.

The Wolf reforms, following Professor Alison Wolf's 2011 review of vocational education, have reversed a damaging trend by ensuring that only good-quality vocational qualifications count. However, it seems unlikely that there would have been an explosion in young people taking low-value qualifications if they hadn't been over-valued in league tables for years.

Underneath these major impacts, the effects on the routine practice of schools have been huge. Take this real-life example: a school that planned to enter only one of its English sets for combined English GCSE (covering language and literature) decided that as those pupils were doing well, they should be entered for English literature GCSE as well. The school celebrated its best ever English results.

This school is then told that because of the "first entry" rules, none of these pupils will count as having achieved English GCSE. The literature exam was their first entry, and literature only counts if taken with English language. As a consequence, the school is listed for a visit from a Department for Education "adviser". The visit is difficult and the English department heavily criticised in the report, despite achieving its best results.

The league table rules entirely created this situation. The punishment of a sensible decision was an unintended consequence, but disturbingly, was not corrected when brought to DfE's attention. There are other examples which illustrate how far the tables have strayed from their original purpose. A familiar one is the independent school doing International GCSEs, whose performance table scores have swung between 0 and 100 per cent and back, depending only on whether the Government's prevailing view is that IGCSEs should count or not.

First class: Jon Coles, group chief executive of United Learning Trust, in a science class at Lambeth Academy

Independent schools will continue to take IGCSEs and happily score 0 in the league tables. You might ask why state school heads are not also prepared to ignore changing indicators. Sometimes commentators talk about heads "playing the league table game" as if responding to incentives is mere cynicism.

In reality, the rewards for table success, and punishments for failure, have been too strong for heads to ignore. And over the last generation, school leaders have internalised the view that good performance against the lead indicators and good education are one and the same.

How do we get ourselves out of this position? Part of the answer lies in providing more information rather than less. A key reason why the indicators are so distorting is that the Government is providing only the data that it prefers.

So, the first reform should be to provide access to exam data in a way that allows parents to set the terms. They might want to know how well children with special educational needs do; or how many pupils get GCSEs in music and dance. All this is held by government.

Secondly, information beyond exam performance should be available. Over recent months, all the political parties have developed an interest in a broader conception of education – particularly the development of character. This enthusiasm is welcome, but for it to take root requires a re-think of what should be most valued in schools.

This is not straightforward. While the alternative performance tables (schoolperformancetables.org.uk) will be providing the breadth of exam information proposed above, they are consulting on how this second change can be done.

Finally, the next round of Ofsted reform is critical. The chief inspector's concern about the consistency of inspection teams makes it unsurprising that the inspection framework has become so data-led. However, this has intensified schools' fears that their next inspection judgement will be based on how their last exam results looked against performance measures.

In bringing inspections "in-house" and involving more serving heads, Ofsted must also bring back a greater sense of judgement to inspection. There are many questions of real importance which require judgements to be made which are not susceptible to data analysis.

A less compliant school system might not be instantly attractive to the next government. But increasing schools' focus on the needs of their pupils does require a reduced focus on the wishes of government. Reforming the accountability system is a crucial next step.

Jon Coles is chief executive of United Learning