Why league tables must stay

Schools should not be allowed to hide behind the facts

Conor Ryan
Thursday 23 August 2001 00:00
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The decision by the Welsh education minister, Jane Davidson, to scrap school league tables followed a similar move by her Northern Irish counterpart, Martin McGuinness. These decisions were hailed by the teaching unions as an example for English and Scottish ministers to follow. But I believe they set a bad example, which it would be unwise to follow.

Performance tables are published annually in England for primary and secondary schools. Scottish tables cover high schools. They are more sophisticated than the unions would have you believe – and if a credible value-added measure is developed, they will improve further. Labour has changed the tables significantly since 1997. Improving schools are highlighted – and teachers in those schools are rewarded financially. Most newspapers now report on the success of the most-improved school, usually in a tough inner-city area.

Average point scores are included for GCSE results (and will soon be added for primary test scores), reflecting all the achievements of pupils in the school. In a few years time it should be possible to track how much a school has enabled pupils to fulfil their potential. This information gives parents a better picture of how their child's school is doing compared with its neighbours, and also spurs schools on to achieve better results. Without primary tables, many mediocre junior schools would have continued to pretend that they were doing a good job.

Ms Davidson argues that it should be enough for parents to know only their own school's results. But why shouldn't they know if a school down the road with a similar intake is perf-orming better? Until a decade ago, schools hid the facts from parents. Most now recognise that well-informed parents are more likely to be constructive supporters of the school.

The Welsh decision is bizarre given the Welsh Assembly's proud boast that it is "uniquely open". The public can read cabinet minutes, yet they can no longer read school exam results, which are of more importance to their daily lives. Far from censoring information, the Government should publish school-by-school data on the Key Stage Three tests taken by 14-year-olds, now an essential part of the secondary-school standards drive. Such data will have to be collected anyway for the value-added tables.

Good value-added information will tell us more about schools and help the self-evaluation unions say they want. When the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) first tried to publish value-added data, there was an outcry from head teachers in leading grammar schools because comparisons made between 14- and 16-year-olds put them in a bad light. They said it didn't reflect improvements between the ages of 11 and 14. The DfEE rightly withdrew those tables, but when 11-16 data is available, it will expose coasting grammar schools as well as highlighting how well (or badly) inner-city comprehensives are doing.

Instead of urging Estelle Morris to follow the lead of Cardiff and Belfast, the teaching unions should work for a credible value-added approach – and be ready to defend it. If they did, it would allay the suspicion that they care more about hiding the inadequacies of their weaker members than ensuring that every child gets the best education.

The writer was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1993-2000

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