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Better off west of the border?

England's chief inspector's claim that the Welsh education minister is letting parents down is not borne out by evidence, says Bob Doe

David Bell's assertion last week that parents in Wales have been "let down" by their minister's decision to abandon tests and league tables seems more reminiscent of the outpourings of his predecessor Chris Woodhead than the sort of evidence-based pronouncements we have come to expect from subsequent chief inspectors. If Mr Bell has any evidence that parents or children in Wales are disadvantaged in some way in comparison with their English counterparts he has yet to publish it. Give us data, David, not dogma.

To paraphrase another former chief inspector, the Welsh should not care a toss what the chief inspector in England (who happens to be a Scot) says about them. But since English education ministers seem to be shifting their own thinking about these very issues, his words may yet achieve greater significance.

He advanced his extraordinary criticism of Welsh ministers at the Social Market Foundation in London. Whether he would have been quite so outspoken west of Offa's Dyke - or in his own homeland, where they have neither league tables nor Sats - we may never know. But at the free-market think-tank he was free with his view that "I do not think it is credible in what is a public service to not make information available to parents". He was referring to the fact that while official performance tables of school results are published for 11 and 16-year-olds in England, they are not in Wales. Jane Davidson, the Welsh education and lifelong learning minister, also abandoned formal testing at the end of key stage 1 in 2001. On the formal testing of seven-year-olds Ms Davidson is very much closer to the wishes of parents than is Mr Bell. The TES's survey of 700 parents in March this year found three-quarters were opposed to testing at seven. In Wales support for abolition was even higher, at 82 per cent.

As for Mr Bell's suggestion that the lack of league tables means Welsh parents are denied information, school exam and test results are still readily accessible there through school prospectuses. At the very least, then, he seems guilty of overstating the case that information is not made available.

But what evidence is there that Welsh parents need league tables - or that they have served parents in England well? Of course, if asked if they want such information on a plate parents are unlikely to actually decline it - and that is reflected in our poll of Welsh parents this week. But the formal publication of comparative school performance tables in England since 1992 does not seem to have improved test or exam scores in England at a more rapid pace than in Wales - if anything, the opposite is true.

Nor do such raw results tell parents what they really need to know when choosing a school - a fact now recognised by ministers in England who are planning new school profiles for parents which go beyond such raw scores.

As everybody but the Office for Standards in Education seems to recognise, league tables largely reflect school intakes. Their raw results do little to help parents to sort out those schools doing better than might be expected from those doing worse.

League tables do not improve parents' choice of schools either; quite the opposite in fact since they are likely to increase competition to get into the apparently more successful ones. In rural Wales there is no realistic choice of school for many parents anyway. So the tables add little to most parents' satisfaction with the education service. For most, they can only add to their anxieties about it.

What they do, of course, is add to the satisfaction of Mr Bell's audience at the Social Market Foundation. League tables were conceived as part of the Conservative government's drive in the 1980s to turn parents into consumers and education into a marketable commodity rather than the partnership that parents enter into with their school.

They seem to offer the illusion of the "best buy". But by definition that is only available to a limited number. If parents really took them seriously, for every one the league tables comforted that their child has made it into the "best" school there would be many others who fear - possibly quite erroneously - they have not.

Schools minister David Miliband was reported as saying last week: "The toughest problem that everyone is thinking about and no one has the magic answer to is how you engage more parents in the education of their kids."

Are league tables the best way to do this if they leave many parents and children anxious that they have had to settle for second-best and teachers defensive because their efforts have been unfairly reported and ranked?

Fortunately most parents know there is more to a school than its place in the official pecking order. The vast majority (more than 90 per cent) of parents told us in March they are happy with their child's school - most (60 per cent) said very happy.

In Wales, whose parents Mr Bell says have been let down, satisfaction was even higher (96 per cent happy - 65 per cent very happy). This week's poll gives a further thumping vote of thanks to the teachers who do a good or excellent job in Welsh schools.

Mr Bell may know better than parents and elected governments what is good for their children. But his political masters in England (unlike Mr Bell) also face re-election soon. They should be asking themselves this: given that choice will inevitably be restricted, does an official but bogus hierarchy of schools, make it more or less likely that voters will ever believe that education really is improving for all?

Bob Doe is editor of The TES

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