‘Let’s ignore misleading school rankings’

Ranking schools from ‘best to worst’ is pointless. And yet, we have long been fixated on school-leaving qualifications, writes Henry Hepburn
5th April 2019, 12:03am
There's No Point In School League Tables Based On Raw Exams Data, Writes Henry Hepburn

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‘Let’s ignore misleading school rankings’

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/lets-ignore-misleading-school-rankings

What’s the point of school league tables based on raw exams data? I could save myself the effort of writing another 600 words and cut to this: there is none.

Little has united Scottish education figures on Twitter in indignation like the tables compiled by newspapers last month. This, one tabloid had tweeted, was a list of all the secondary schools in Scotland, from “best-performing to worst”.

Papers took different approaches, with some rudimentary attempts to factor in deprivation data or “virtual comparators” - the system by which schools try to measure progress against fairer yardsticks. Ultimately, however, a school’s ranking came down to how many Highers it had racked up (as it does every year).

In isolation, this is a terrible way to judge a school’s success. The number of Highers achieved by a school never strays far from the level of affluence enjoyed by the parents of its pupils. It’s deeply unfair, not to mention misleading, to rank schools on this basis.

Who are these tables for, anyway? Not teachers, who know how flawed such rankings are and do their best to ignore them. (Although some claimed online that schools were perfectly happy to trumpet their success if they were near the top of the table.) Not pupils, who remain blithely unaware, unless word filters through the corridors and the canteen that their school - which they might have thought was pretty good - has been deemed “shit” in the papers.

The problem with school league tables

No, the league tables are compiled for exactly the sort of people who work for newspapers: middle-class professionals. It’s a cheap and easy way to both create a bit of a stir and make a certain tranche of the population feel reassured that their offspring are - perhaps after an expensive house move into the right catchment area - at a suitably impressive school. The irony is that this crude use of data may mask the fact that their school is the exact opposite. Attainment at Higher may appear lofty, but given where the school’s pupils were when they arrived, perhaps it should have been well above that: schools that seem outstanding may actually be coasting - or worse.

As one tweeter said of their old school, which was in the top 10 last month: “I got five Highers. I got excluded from subjects I ‘wouldn’t do well in’ … I also got bullied for four years. Sometimes by teachers. One told me that I would die before I was 30 and go to hell.”

Similarly, take a school in a housing scheme with relatively few Higher passes. But what was the attainment rate a few years ago? Are pupils exceeding their projected progress? Could the few who want to go to university actually be outperforming their peers in the “posh” school across town, only for their success to be lost in the pea soup of statistics that measure everyone in the same way?

We just don’t know from these league tables: the data can obscure deficiencies and remarkable stories of success. The rankings are, almost without qualification, useless.

And what is their impact on schools? Nothing except “making some kids and teachers feel like crap”, said one commentator. A defiant parent tweeted: “My boy’s school is 291 but it has a fantastic support base for ASN [additional support needs] children, he’s included, valued and happy … I’ll pick 291 over top 10 until the cows come home.”

But are the newspapers to blame when the education system itself - despite laudable attempts to do something different - still largely pivots on the number of qualifications accrued in the final stage of students’ long journey through school?

Of course, league tables are bunkum. But they reflect a historic obsession with Higher pass rates - above all other forms of achievement in schools - that remains a long way from being consigned to the past.

Henry Hepburn is news editor at Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “Let’s ignore misleading rankings: schools are in another league”

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