Each year the release of newspaper school league tables for Scotland is a day I dread, and the publication of the 2021 results yesterday was no different. The language of the headlines – "Which school is the best in Scotland?" and "Scotland’s schools ranked best to worst" – is both incredibly damaging and demoralising for staff, pupils, parents and school communities across the country, not to mention the reputational harm it can cause for years to come.
The stories will continue today in the local news, where it feels like we need to put on our armour and prepare for attack. No matter how much we’ve done in all other parts of school life throughout the year, the focus to determine our worth and whether we are a "good" school seems to rest singlehandedly on the one measure of how many young people achieve five Highers in one sitting.
As a school, we pick up the pieces from this for months to come – only for it to come around again next year. It is not, of course, that we do not focus on trying to improve by the measure of five Highers, but, because of context and, indeed, probably our own vision and values, we will always be near the "bottom".
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Our main aims are educating our young people out of poverty and instilling in them the belief that no matter where you come from or the challenges you have faced in your life, you can still achieve your dreams and be the best you can be. University, a modern apprenticeship or a job are all given equal weighting; the most important thing is that the young person has achieved the best they can – and, believe me, every day we support, challenge, motivate, nurture and push high expectations to ensure this happens.
League tables aren't fair on schools
I congratulate those top-performing schools where up to 86 per cent of young people have achieved the "gold standard" of five Highers. It is an incredible achievement and should be celebrated – but everything is about context, and schools should and need to be measured on so much more. I am not shirking accountability or responsibility as a headteacher – the measure of five Highers is important – but if closing the attainment gap simply meant improving this one measure, and that determined whether we were a "good" or "bad" school, we would have used our Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) and Scottish Attainment Challenge funding very differently – and probably not made that many gains.
I could concentrate on the fact that 70 per cent of our young people live in SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) 1 and 2 or that 20 per cent of each cohort arrive at us with a reading age of 8 or below, or that nearly 40 per cent of our students are on free school meals. This would make it easy to excuse why we are one of the "worst" schools in the league table – but I won’t, because that is not what we base our views of children on.
What I will focus on is that, in 2020, nearly 95 per cent of our young people left school to go into a positive destination – above the national average of 93.3 per cent – and that last session 100 per cent of our young people in S4 achieved five or more national qualifications (nobody was "left behind", regardless of any barrier) and that this year 23 of our young people (almost a third of the cohort) are heading off to universities across the country – the same group of young people who didn’t achieve five Highers in one sitting.
I implore you, please don’t judge our incredible young people or our amazing school, filled with dedicated, passionate staff, on this one measure of five Highers – know that we are doing everything possible to ensure that our students are given a gold-star service to prepare them to have the best life possible after school, with or without the achievement of the "gold standard".
Are we one of the "worst" schools in the country? Of course we’re not – and I would vehemently challenge anyone who considers this to be the case.
Shelley McLaren is headteacher at Craigroyston Community High School in Edinburgh