Book of the week

Back in the times when life in school was simple, headteachers were able to worry about the people around them: children, teachers, parents. Now they have to fret about the digits in performance tables, for it is on these that their schools will be judged. Sad really.

Tony Neal's handy little booklet introduces the reader to one of the current shibboleths of performance measurement, "value added".

As the head of a Lincolnshire school, the author is in a good position to sense what is needed, and he explains the issues clearly, with plenty of examples.

Whatever they tell us about where people live, or the nature of a school's intake, raw score league tables, which simply rank schools in order of public examination results, are devoid of meaning when it comes to judging the quality of teaching within them. To no one's surprise, a highly selective school appears at the top, and a non-selective school in an area with major problems at the bottom.

The problem with this neatly ordered view of humanity is that there will always be a top and bottom. Rank-order Nobel prize winners, or the archangels in heaven, and some will be in the lowest quartile, threatened with special measures and relegation to the Conference League. Do the same in hell and a quarter of the most evil criminals who ever lived will be feted as "the best". It is a crazy system.

The purpose of "value added", as the author points out in his early chapters, is to get round this problem by ranking schools in order of what they appear to have done for their charges, the "value" they have added. In theory, at any rate, this is fairer, more reflective of the quality of the school.

The book takes the reader step by step through the procedures involved: using input scores toestablish a baseline, taking output scores as a criterion measure, calculating from these what the school seems to have added.

There are three extremely useful appendices which show the complete process worked out for a group of pupils. The mathematics involved is dead simple - nothing that would perplex a suitably value-added GCSE candidate - but the faint-hearted who blanch at the sight of two or more digits, or a Greek letter, will be able to follow the examples and displays of printouts.

The author has chosen to use a conversational style that reveals freely his own prejudices and the policies of the Secondary Heads Association. There is nothing wrong with this and it is refreshing to see this topic written up by a real human being, not a silicon chip. It is a style which will date, however, as will using words such as "recent", as the text frequently does. but that does not matter, as it is meant to be a practical guide, not a timeless statistical text.

Heads and teachers looking for a user-friendly guide to a topical matter will find this volume most useful. It is set out logically, has frequent summaries and should not produce spots before your eyes or dizzy spells.

But there is already evidence that many schools have started to concentrate their efforts on pupils who are at or near borderlines between crucial grades, such as 3 and 4 at key stage 2, or C and D at GCSE. No one should be seduced by the data analysis techniques.

It is not the author's fault that we have gone mad on rank-ordering humanity. Indeed, he does his best to humanise a process that can easily be misused. In the end schools tend to do whatever shows them up in the best light, although whether this benefits all their pupils is another matter.

Ted Wragg

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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