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'Let’s stop pretending that league tables are about transparency; they are about pressure'

Vic Goddard, principal of Passmores Academy, writes:

Well, the silly season of league tables is back with a vengeance this year. Wherever you look, opinions are being bandied around like they are statements of fact. The ever-present favourite is always from the DfE and it goes like this: “We don’t produce league tables, we just publish data. The media produces league tables”. I always hear the Benny Hill theme tune playing as I read it – it is that ridiculous.

This year, the BBC has joined in with statements of ‘fact’ like this one linked to the issue of students getting more than one attempt to pass an exam: “This [the ending of early entry being included in league tables] was aimed at ending the practice of schools entering pupils for re-sits to boost their ranking.” That is a fact, is it? That is why all schools in the country decided to give their students a chance to improve a grade and to learn from their mistakes, is it? What that statement is accusing schools of is basing our decisions on whether it will help us in the league tables. The media is so scared of getting sued that they use the word “allegedly” in order to get away with discussing certain people/topics all the time. If I thought I could sue them over the use of that ‘fact’, then I’d be sorely tempted to take them to court!

League tables have an impact in some circumstances, but do you honestly think Eton, Harrow, etc, are going to have a student recruitment crisis because of their new league table position? I think not. The places where they have an impact are places that have more school places than young people, but even then it relies on the parents/carers understanding the doublespeak that is always evident – and caring about it, to boot.

I think media outlets are focussing on the wrong things with this set of results. The worrying thing isn’t about what impact the changes have had on my or anyone else’s league table position, it is the lifelong impact the constant and seemingly ad-hoc changes have had on the young people’s future life opportunities.

How many employers are going to remember the years of 2013 and 2014 as the period where someone elected to represent young people decided to ‘reset’ the system? How many of them are going to remember that a C this year was harder to get than it was two years ago and take that into account when deciding who to offer a job to? I can tell you: almost none.

The league tables on the BBC have more than one year’s worth of results. They are published in this way so that you can see how a school is doing over time. Well, that is no longer possible. It may help you differentiate between schools that decided to change their curriculum or had a curriculum that matched some of the decisions taken by the DfE, but little else.

Let’s stop pretending that league tables are about transparency; they are about pressure. They are about the underlying belief of politicians that competition between schools helps to raise standards. If you want to see what the impact of competition is on school performance, let us see how helpful it is over the next few months in the lead up to the election. We all know that the torrent of sycophantic posturing that we will all have to sit through will be relentless. I don’t think that the competition will help any member of the government to run our country better; every one of their decisions will be tempered with, "but how will it look to the public?".

So, well done to any media outlet that have published league tables. They will have little impact on the decisions parents make about schools, but they will increase the stress levels of many teachers and headteachers. If you think the best way to improve performance is to make people so anxious they make poor decisions, fail to see the benefits of collaborating with each other and place undue stress on those teachers already working flat out, I think there's a future for you in politics.


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