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'League tables should be taken away from government control'


Simon Lebus, group chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, writes:

Following the government's controversial decision a couple weeks ago that excluded IGCSEs from UK school league tables, Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that up to 200 schools may end up closed or taken over as a result of failing to hit minimum performance targets. This illustrates the importance of league tables as an instrument of public policy.

Interestingly the league tables themselves are compiled and published by the Department for Education and the method of their compilation therefore reflects policy decisions by particular governments. As a result, what is included or excluded from league tables can vary considerably over time, making them, for all practical purposes, ineffective instruments for the objective tracking of changes in educational standards over time.

When one considers that the average term of office for secretary of states since 1979 has been less than two years (there have been 18 secretaries of state for education since 1979) it is clear that the lack of any reliable measure of improvements in educational achievement is a real handicap in trying to determine which policies are most effective.

The last government introduced primary legislation to set up Ofqual as an agency independent of government in order that it could be guaranteed that the government does not control the public exam system. Is it not time that the compilation and publication of league tables, with all the judgements and decisions that are involved, was also handed over to an independent body?

This would be a better approach than that proposed by some parties' manifestos, which are suggesting the publication of league tables should be restricted. It is clearly not appropriate that the public should be deprived of the information necessary to judge how effectively the £49 billion of annual expenditure on schools is being spent.

It would also appear to be more effective than the current education secretary Nicky Morgan's apparent suggestion that independent schools are all likely to defect from the IGCSEs they have been using for several years to the new (and until 2017 untested) GCSEs once they realise how good they are.

Another approach is that being developed by the Open Public Services Network (OPSN) where I chair a working party on how public data can be used in a way that is more useful and accessible. OPSN is due to publish a report in conjunction with a major UK city council.  

It should draw some interesting conclusions, leading to the suggestion that an intelligent mining of data is probably a much more useful tool in improving educational standards than the overly mechanical snapshot represented by traditional league tables and the very instrumental approach to education that they encourage.

This opinion piece first appeared as a blog on the Cambridge Assessment website.

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