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League tables don't stack up

I often find myself nodding in agreement when I read The TES editorial. But a few weeks ago, the editor wrote in support of retaining primary league tables, saying that although the shortcomings of the tables were well known, their benefits had been deliberately obscured.

Benefits? Well, for the life of me, I can't see any.

Southwark, my local authority, is a socially diverse area, with exceptional deprivation in some parts and pockets of extreme privilege in others. It also has a large number of primary schools.

My school is usually high in its league tables because the children are extremely well taught, and in one particular year, we were almost at the top. Why did we achieve this? Because the cohort was an exceptionally able one - but then, they had been a notable group throughout the school.

The following year we had slipped half a dozen places, and one of my governors expressed great concern. I explained that the current cohort wasn't as able as the previous year's.

"Well, if we are going back down the league tables, then standards must be dropping," he said. "We should always be moving steadily upwards."

For a supposedly intelligent governor, it was hard to believe he could make such a stupid and ill-informed comment. But then, he hardly ever visited the school, knew little about the children we taught, and was using our governing body as a political stepping-stone.

In fact, the cohort had been taught just as well as any other, but reality dictates that you can't, in the end, spin every piece of flax into gold. You just have to do the best you can - and the league tables have no real recognition of that, despite various attempts at value-adding.

These tables also encourage schools to become cramming institutions. Good results are utterly essential in warding off the aggressive glare of Ofsted, the LEA, the School Improvement Partner. To them, data is everything.

In many cases, schools have abandoned an interesting curriculum at the top of the school, in order to relentlessly ensure the maximum numbers of children achieve level 4, force-feeding them past papers to the point where their parents plead for them to be allowed to do some art or model-making. Cramming like this has no justification.

Years ago, prior to my second Ofsted inspection, the lead inspector looked at our performance and assessment report (PANDA), saw that our results were far lower than usual, and made up her mind that we were falling apart. I suspect she'd virtually written her critique before she walked into the building.

She showed little interest in our explanation that, due to an exodus of families to newer estates outside London, more than half the current Year 6 children hadn't been with us in Years 3 and 4. We'd lost many able children, and had taken in many with social problems and low ability. Twelve were on the special needs register. She demanded incontrovertible proof of all these things, before grudgingly agreeing.

Is there even one good reason for retaining league tables? I don't think so. They put schools in exceptionally challenging areas - whose teachers are often highly skilled and exceptionally hard-working - in an unacceptably invidious position. They pit school against school. And they give parents of potential pupils no real idea of what a school is like.

Would you use them when deciding which primary school to send your child to? Of course you wouldn't.

You'd go and visit the school, ask lots of pertinent questions, talk to its parents and children, and look in depth at what it offers.

The league tables have no use at all. And they should go.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.


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