This year’s School League Tables are now out. School leaders will have suffered sleepless nights before their release and, as usual, the day itself saw a great deal of political posturing and spin. But what do school league tables really show us about school standards?
Even the fiercest of critics of league tables would probably agree that the principle of the tables is a good one. They should be useful as a way of comparing key aspects of performance across schools, and are potentially useful for parents as they make choices about what school they would like their child to go to.
However, ‘in principle’ and ‘in practice’ are two very different things.
Possibly the saddest indictment of school league tables is that ‘Performance Tables Day’ is now as important to schools as GCSE and A Level Results Day.
And, do the school league tables really tell us anything valuable and meaningful about standards anyway?
Cutting through the spin
Of course, on the day that school league tables are released the one thing we know will accompany them is political spin. Sure enough, a DfE press release from 25 January proudly boasted that: ‘Education standards continue to rise at GCSE and A level.’
However, the UK Statistics Authority has already criticised the DfE for using statistics in a misleading way. The problem with statistics is that they can be spun in various directions. A big problem with school league tables is that the statistical data used on them changes so frequently.
The performance indicators deemed to be key measures have changed several times in recent years. Now we have the colour-coded Progress 8 measures: Green (well-above average); Amber (average); Red (well-below average). But, previous headline figures – such as 5 A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths – have now gone by the wayside. In their place are new measures like Grade 5 or above in English and Maths.
Do schools know where they stand?
With schools operating, it seems almost continually, in a state of flux with new measures being introduced and the goalposts being changed regularly, it becomes very difficult to make any sound and fair judgements about schools based on the data that the league tables provide.
All schools know that the school league tables do not tell the full story of a school. The picture it gives is never really clear. In fact, you could argue that the picture is cloudier and murkier than ever these days.
What are the headline figures?
The lack of clarity can be illustrated by the headline figures from this latest round of league tables. On the plus side, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has narrowed by 10% in 6 years.
Many people will be alarmed to see that the number of schools falling below the government floor standard has gone up. Even the DfE admits that the rise is largely due to the changes in the way that Progress 8 and Attainment 8 are calculated. This is small comfort, for schools who have slipped below the floor standard though with the potential damage this could do to the school’s reputation.
The DfE chose to ignore the fall of 3.9 points overall across EBacc subjects in the Attainment 8 in its press release. More worrying still is the fact that a woeful 5.9% of low attaining pupils achieved the new measure for EBacc. This, of course, throws into question the wisdom into forcing all pupils down such a narrow academic route. Indeed, numbers of EBacc entries are down overall, which suggests that some schools are kicking back against the government’s push for the EBacc.
What all this shows is that when it comes to school league tables, very little is black and white or crystal clear. As such, they need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
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