Who wins with such flawed school league tables?

School league tables in Scotland completely fail to recognise the hard work and success of schools in poorer communities, writes Henry Hepburn

Flawed school league tables in Scotland help no one, argues Henry Hepburn

It’s remarkably hard to find a simple alphabetical list of every secondary school in Scotland. Try Google and you’ll find that while a few people have drawn up Wikipedia lists of all the schools in certain local authorities, no one appears to have done it for the whole country.

There are, however, plenty of lists of all 340 or so state secondaries in Scotland, only not in alphabetical order – in the form of school league tables.

It’s a source of enduring frustration in schools that such credence is given to what is a fundamentally flawed endeavour. And school league tables have hit the headlines again in the past week, so it’s worth restating this: newspapers’ league tables are a far better indicator of affluence than they are of educational excellence.

How must it feel to know that your school is doing outstanding work in improving prospects, in helping young people to gain qualifications far beyond what they were expected to achieve, only to find that, in official-looking league tables, you are deemed one of the country’s worst schools?

Flawed school league tables

Well, I can tell you how it feels, because people who work in such schools have told me: it feels horrendous.

And it’s not just staff who are affected – students, who might previously have felt they were happy at school and doing well, also hear about these league tables. They ask their teachers if it’s really true that their school is one of the worst in Scotland. It’s desperately sad to think that league tables not only distort a school’s performance but also how students view their school.

League tables are, of course, generally a crude totting up of the number of students who gain a high number of National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers. Some of the schools racking up lots of these will be outstanding, but it’s not necessarily so – some may be coasting but still recording many Higher passes thanks largely to a fluke of demographics. Similarly, a school in a poorer area may have a grand total of Highers far lower than a school in the well-heeled suburb up the road, but its students who are taking multiple Highers may be doing far better than predicted – perhaps better than they would have done in the “posh” school.

League tables, then, may reassure some families that it really was worth the hassle of moving to a “better” catchment area, but they achieve little else and can be damaging. It would be refreshing to see a little more solidarity in Scottish education, to hear quotes from a high-ranking school that not only recount the great things it is doing but also point out that these league tables are fundamentally unfair to many other outstanding schools.

Another type of league table will, of course, receive huge amounts of attention on Tuesday, when the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results are published. Speaking to several influential figures in Scottish education in recent weeks, there’s a clear nervousness about what the global research will say about Scotland. They know that Pisa is not a perfect assessment of where things are at in this country, but, like it or not, it matters: the new results will shape the political debate around Scottish education for years to come.

Education rankings of some sort will always be around. Trying to understand how well a school or education system is doing in the grand scheme is not, in itself, wrong – the use of “virtual comparator schools” has been an attempt to do it fairly, although you don’t see that method making many headlines.

But measurement should always lead to improvement. Crude school league tables unfairly condemn a school’s record, ignore brilliant teachers’ dedication and innovation, and undermine the confidence of students who have made remarkable progress.

How on earth is that supposed to make education better?

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 29 Month 2019 issue under the headline “Why such biased school league tables, does anyone really win?”