Primary league tables: does anyone really care?

If league tables tell us anything, it's that results aren't everything when choosing a primary school, says Michael Tidd

Michael Tidd

Who cares about primary school league tables, asks Michael Tidd

With the general election all over, now it’s time to pick up the pieces of all the things that were disrupted by it.

Halls cleared, nativities rescheduled, and we can all sit down and start planning how we’re going to spend the millions of extra pounds coming schools’ way, apparently. 

But something else was disrupted by the election last Thursday: the primary school league tables were published a day late.

What do you mean you didn’t notice? You didn’t have parents ringing up the school office asking where they were? Or the local community getting in touch to ask about your progress in mathematics last year compared with the national average?

Perhaps people aren’t as bothered about them as we’re meant to believe.

Primary school league tables

It’s almost as though results aren’t the be all and end all of choosing a primary school. Indeed, it may even be that parents don’t believe the results tell them much about a school at all. And they’re probably right. They’d probably have a better idea of whether the school was right for their child by paying a visit one Friday morning. Especially if it’s wet play.

The new Ofsted framework – for all its other issues – has rather highlighted some of the problems. Yes, your local primary school might have sky-high results in English and maths. But, if that’s all they’ve got, is it really where you’d want to send your children? 

By contrast, your nearest junior school probably looks like it’s falling short on some measure or another, but it may also have the best music teaching this side of King’s College, Cambridge.

Random set of numbers

In years gone by, the national news would have been filled with news of the so-called league tables, telling us where the supposedly best and worst schools in the land were. The local newspapers would have shown each school’s results in some sort of ranking – although quite what they decide is the most important bit of data is questionable.

Is the best school the one that had the highest results in reading last year? Or is it more important that a school’s disadvantaged pupils scored over 103 on the maths tests? Do the writing results matter, or have we all agreed now that that data’s just complete nonsense? 

It seems that, frankly, you can’t tell a lot about any school from the fairly random set of numbers that appear on the government website.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have the data at all, or even that it should necessarily be kept secret. I don’t mind schools having to publish their results on their websites (although I’m not persuaded anyone pays much attention to them there, either). I’m quite happy with Ofsted using them to guide its inspections. 

It’s the suggestion that they’re useful for comparing schools directly that I find so irritating.

Compare the market

And let’s not pretend about this. There was a time when the statistics were published on a website that was called “Performance Tables”. The context was definitely about performance, much like you might judge who to vote for on Strictly on any given night. 

Today, the website is very clearly entitled “Compare schools”, as though the data was what mattered.

But, in truth, does anyone really care? Was anyone disappointed not to have the new results on their screens on Thursday? Will anyone’s choice of primary school be any less valid or sound because of the lack of access to the random combinations of numbers and colours? 

Quite frankly, would anyone have cared if it hadn’t been published at all?

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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