'Enough is enough – it's not all about exam results'

The focus on school league tables creates perverse incentives for schools – something has to change, says Geoff Barton

The narrow focus on league tables incentivises schools to pursue unethical practices, such as off-rolling, warns Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

This week, I had coffee with the leader of a school trust in North London. She told me how proud she was that, in her many years of leading schools in a challenging community, she could count on one hand the number of children she had permanently excluded

She was proud that an ethos that talked of being inclusive actually delivered that principle in practice. 

She looked at me and added this killer line: “And that’s despite a system that makes it easier to get rid of some kids rather than try to keep them in school.”

I was thinking about this – of the various drivers in our education system – when I joined 150 or so people in a cavernous lecture hall at the UCL Institute of Education.

These were teachers, school and college leaders and governors and trustees. And none of them needed to be there. 

Off-rolling is just plain wrong

Yet they were there because they supported something that may just be the sign of something far bigger than we realise. It was the second annual seminar on ethics: an event that arose from the publication of a report by the Ethical Leadership Commission in 2019.

As that report said in its first sentence: “School and college leaders face ethical dilemmas every day, but have never had an agreed framework that enables us to explore and test these dilemmas against ethical principles.”

This seminar was designed to do just that: to explore some of the difficult decisions faced by leaders and governors, and to subject them to scrutiny. 

And the tone wasn’t one of clambering on to some notional moral high ground and wagging a finger at everyone else. Instead, there was a real effort in a complex world to come to some ethical certainties. 

Some of these are more clear-cut than others. As I said in my speech: “What we can and must say, as a general principle, is that gaming and off-rolling are just plain wrong.

“They are the extremities of poor practice and they do not happen in the vast majority of schools. The work on ethics in education is vital in confronting this sort of behaviour.”

Perverse incentives

There’s an urgency to this, because the world we live in has changed, making it easier for people to say things, or claim things, or criticise people, and to short-circuit due processes. 

And, as ever, there are people out there willing to play to our baser instincts by incentivising and facilitating the wrong things. 

As the independent commission on examination malpractice has pointed out, you can, for example, find online a “cheating watch”: an apparent replica of a smartwatch, on to which you can upload 8GB of exam notes.

A quick search reveals that there’s a myriad of dodgy gadgets out there, from earpieces to specially designed cheating pens.

And, as we ourselves navigate the moral maze, and help our students to do so, it’s worth reflecting on how our system leads some people to do things that, frankly, they shouldn’t be doing. They lurk within that dark phrase “perverse incentives”.

In our system, it is simply a fact that a small number of rogue results can send your Progress 8 score into nosedive. It is a perverse incentive to do the wrong thing and ease out the pupils in the margins. 

The pressure of exam results

The system, note, doesn’t excuse the off-rolling of certain students or the deliberate attempt not to take them into our school in the first place. But it does make it more likely to happen.

Which is why at the seminar I was struck by the agreement that it’s time for us to look to our own collective behaviours – to make sure that, whatever the pressures, we do what’s right.

But there’s a bigger appetite, too, to start questioning any system that gives so much store to so many exams, that prizes results so much more significantly than wellbeing, and that gives so little recognition to some of the proudest traditions of the English education system – its pastoral care, its extracurricular provision, its development of character, and much more.

Which is why, in a bold but simple move, a government with a large majority and swathes of new constituencies could and should consider a move away from the narrow focus of performance tables, and instead provide a balanced dashboard of measures, which recognises things like inclusion, wellbeing and the sports, clubs and activities that enrich our schools.

Yesterday’s conference was ostensibly about ethics. More profoundly, it was people saying: enough is enough. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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