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Academy rankings could be hit by data deluge

The "Big Society" arrived in education with a vengeance this week.

Michael Gove proudly announced that 16 groups of parents, teachers and charities were on course to set up their own free schools.

But that was not all. The Education Secretary had even more exciting news. He plans to allow parents to compile their own school league tables!

Ordinary people are no doubt swotting up on their spreadsheet skills at the very prospect.

It is easy to mock. But most would see making as much information as possible about schools publicly available as a good thing.

Any parent who did delve into the mass of data on their local schools would probably quickly realise how distorting it is to make simplistic one dimensional judgments about them.

But the scheme also has limitations. Just because there is a lot of data published on a school, does not mean it is good quality or that it tells you what is important.

For people to really know how well a school is doing there would need to be an accurate, easily understandable measure of the impact of pupil background. Experts argue that contextual value added does not effectively or reliably do that job.

Then there is the question of how many parents will really have the time or inclination to lovingly compile their own bespoke tables.

And if some do, it will only worsen the already damaging relative disadvantage suffered by children of parents who don't care which school they attend.

The plan also fails to address what, for many, is the most troubling aspect of league tables - the perverse incentives they create for school behaviour.

Lots of parents compiling different league tables will have no impact on this problem at all. Schools will continue to be influenced by the league table measures that really count - those used by the media and, even more importantly, by the Government.

Which is where Mr Gove's proposed English Baccalaureate comes in. A requirement to gain five "good" GCSEs in English, maths, a science, language and "humanity" - it is not actually a Baccalaureate at all in the generally understood sense of the term.

There would be no extended project or broader extra-curricular element. But if it really was adopted as a replacement for the "five A*-C GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths" as the Government's measure of secondary performance, as Mr Gove seems to be suggesting, it would make a huge difference.

Gone would be any incentive to use questionable qualifications to boost league table positions and a genuinely broad academic curriculum should result.

But big questions remain. What will it do for the motivation of pupils who struggle with traditional academic subjects? And will Mr Gove be quite so keen when he realises what effect it might have on the league table positions of some of the academies he has been so vociferous in promoting?

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