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Point scoring over league tables

Two weeks ago our columnist Peter Wilby lambasted fee-charging schools who cried foul after losing out in new performance tables. We invited their chief spin-doctor, Dick Davison, to take up the cudgels against him

Dear Peter

I was touched by your concern for me in your last column (see below). But I confess I've never read Finnegan's Wake. And, thank you, I've never had any difficulty getting a plumber. You missed the point about our response to the Government's performance tables (TES, January 21). It was not intended to denigrate serious vocational education. Why would we? An increasing number of our schools undertake vocational studies at advanced level and their candidates achieve impressive results.

Nor is our concern to do with being pushed off the top of league tables.

Independent schools, like state schools, have always been vociferously opposed to the whole idea of league tables: a partial, flawed and misleading record of what any school - selective or otherwise - achieves.

Last autumn's annual meeting of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference came within an ace of deciding to have nothing to do with newspaper league tables ever again.

The latest tables no longer tell parents anything valuable about the quality of a school's academic or vocational programme. They yoke together grossly dissimilar types of qualification, solely in order to count beans.

Exactly the same point could be made about the Ucas A-level tariff. When Bristol university selects candidates to read chemistry, it is of less interest that a candidate gets 340 points than that at least one element is A-level chemistry. Potential students of podiatry at Brighton university will probably need to show that biology or a healthcare vocational equivalent contributed to their 200 points total. Quality, in other words, as well as quantity.

The new tariff allows a school to show apparently acceptable performance scores when some of its pupils fail to get any kind of qualification in maths, English or science. And not only allows - positively encourages - as some heads have admitted. That makes silly jibes about Finnegan's Wake irrelevant.

Yours, Dick Dear Dick

I thought, for a mad moment, that we could start by agreeing about something: that the league tables have always been meaningless. But alas, you soon betray yourself. "The league tables no longer tell parents anything valuable about the quality of a school's ... programme," you write. So, you imply, they did once have value and meaning - when they measured only conventional GCSE and A-level results. In other words, you don't really mind beans being counted, as long as they're the right beans.

But that involves a false comparison that is bigger and more damaging than anything that attempts to lump vocational and academic subjects together.

Your schools select the academically most able pupils they can find (provided their parents can pay), they expel or ease out the ones who don't come up to scratch, and then they boast about getting the best academic results. If your schools took the range of children that the average comprehensive has to cope with, we could make a proper comparison and see how good they really are. I predict they'd fall flat on their faces because most of them have no idea how to deal with average or below-average pupils.

And they would just sneer at any who wanted to become cake-decorators, though it is a perfectly good way of earning a living, and probably gives pleasure to more people than a classical scholar has ever done.

Yours, Peter

Dear Peter

Actually, I think we can agree. Before league tables, parents could not rely on consistent information about school performance in public exams. We can both remember when schools - state and independent - would let parents have only the edited highlights. Parents should have full information; but I do mean full - what are the school's policies on admissions and examinations and what kind of qualifications are pupils achieving? Unlike the Premiership, the points total is not all-important.

The old "independent schools can only teach bright pupils" canard simply perpetuates the myth that all independent schools are selective. They are not. Look no further than the Department for Education and Skills' own statistics. Until it introduced new measures of added value, the department used to track A-level (academic and vocational) performance against earlier GCSE performance. In 2003 it reported that, of candidates who had scored less than four points per subject at GCSE (yes, we did have some), only 20 per cent in independent schools failed to reach 60 points at A-level; in maintained schools 32 per cent failed to reach that level.

Sorry about the wretched points, but there's no other short way to demonstrate that. And since this started as an argument about the value of vocational education, you might be persuaded by evidence from last year's VCE results (they used to be called advanced level GNVQs, in case you didn't know). Twenty-two per cent of the candidates from Independent Schools Council member got A grades, compared with a national average of 7.4 per cent.


Dear Dick

What a pity that, unlike me, you never worked for an editor who had a sceptical eye for statistics. "You state that this school's A-level passes have doubled," he would say. "From what to what? From one to two?" If your schools had A-level candidates who scored less than four points at GCSE, we need to know how many of them there were. And why, while we're about it, they did so badly at GCSE. If your schools did well in VCEs - and I know that only 50 out of 476 entered any pupils at all - we need to know numbers of candidates.

Your heads often try to convince me that their schools cover a wide social range. Why, some of our children's fathers are plumbers, they say. Don't they know how much money plumbers make nowadays? Even those of your schools that are non-selective academically (and, again, you don't give a number), are still selective in an important sense: their parents can afford fees and are motivated and supportive enough to pay them. The research demonstrates how important this is, alongside social class, as an influence on pupil achievement.

I don't object to your omitting any mention of these advantages from your publicity: I have just seen a press release that boasts about your schools'

"near-perfect A-level pass rate" and prints a graph comparing state schools unfavourably. You are in business. But you should stop crying "foul" every time somebody tries to give state schools a fairer crack of the whip.


Dear Peter

In fact, my editor would have used more expletives. The number of independent school pupils with such poor GCSEs was indeed small. It would, you are also right to infer, have been a poor show if there were more. I took the most extreme example for dramatic effect - and don't tell me newspapers don't do that - but my assertion, that independent schools add more value, appears to hold good across the ability range.

In a sense, you seem to concede this point, because you go on to suggest that it's only because the social catchment of our schools is heavily skewed by financial selection. It's true that, since the ending of the assisted places scheme, the only way most schools can substantially widen their intake to lower-income families is by recycling other parents' money.

It's a tribute to the commitment of schools to widening access that tens of millions of pounds have recently been added to bursary funds. And don't forget that, in spite of the obstacles, half the children of manual workers who get into Cambridge, do so through independent schools.

Finally, at a time when a third of employers have to give school leavers remedial training in literacy skills, I don't believe it's crying foul to object to a performance reporting system which permits schools to conceal their deficiencies in basic subjects.


Dear Dick

There, as Ronald Reagan used to say, you go again. You complain about "a system which permits schools to conceal their deficiencies in basic subjects". The vast majority of your schools have no such deficiencies because they select them out in advance. Even where a few difficult pupils slip through the net, their performance is pulled up because the other children are so advantaged. That's why your schools can add value across the board. If your bright, privileged children were in comprehensives, they would boost results across a much wider section of the population. Schools do best if they have a balanced intake, mixing clever and stupid, privileged and deprived. Your schools' intakes are inevitably unbalanced and thus directly help to make state school intakes unbalanced in the opposite direction. Then you have the cheek to criticise those schools for "deficiencies".

We can, perhaps, agree on one thing: there should be no league tables. Each school should be required to hold and publish, in standardised form, a wide range of information on its performance in exams. The results should not be aggregated and published centrally. But I'm afraid the very existence of your schools is a foul against the education and life chances of the majority of our children. What a pity that we have no hope of a government that would show them the red card.


Dick Davison is head of communications for the Independent Schools Council


The TES, January 21:

The heads - or at least the Independent Schools Council that speaks on their behalf - are in a fury because they no longer come top of the secondary school league tables.

This, they argue, is unfair because schools are now allowed to count pupils' success in vocational exams.

They picked out cake decoration for particular scorn but would no doubt be equally dismissive in courses on plumbing or electrical maintenance.

They believe the league tables should count only exams in academic subjects such as English literature and physics, "on whose importance", a spokesman said, "everyone is agreed".

I imagine this spokesman, as he drives home of a winter evening, worries not about burst pipes, but about being confronted with a particularly impenetrable chapter from Finnegan's Wake.

I think of him going to the Yellow Pages in a desperate search for literary scholars and being upset when he finds only long lists of unimportant plumbers.

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