'Three reasons why the secondary school league tables don't matter as much as you'd think'

25th January 2018 at 15:07
School leaders will have had sleepless nights worrying about the league tables out today – but instead of allowing them to close down conversations about schools, we should use them to open up broader discussion, writes ASCL leader Geoff Barton

It’s that day again. The school year used to follow a familiar rhythm of training days, parents’ evenings, mock exams, revision classes, occasional dressing-up days, open evenings, Year 11 farewells and end-of-year celebrations.

School years still have those elements, of course, except now we also have rather less natural rhythms imposed by the examination and accountability system – mock exams, walk-and-talk mocks, more mocks of any variety, the stomach-tightening wait before results day, results day, the local media coverage the day after results day, and then today. It is performance tables’ day. Don’t expect the popping of corks or strewing of celebratory bunting.

Today will leave some school communities at risk of spiralling into gloom, and with, potentially, much worse fallout lying ahead.

In their hearts, every school leader knows that today’s performance tables only tell a limited story about their school. And yet, many leaders will have had sleepless nights over the past week – whether they are heads, deputies, assistant heads, heads of department or heads of year. They know, of course, that performance tables don’t matter. But they also know that performance tables do matter.

So, to help retain our sense of collective perspective, here are three reasons why today’s performance tables matter far less than their media prominence might have us believe.

1. Very few parents and carers send their children to a school on the basis of its performance table rank order

If we think they do, we probably misrepresent them. Parents want their children to be secure, happy, well taught, in an environment of civilised behaviour and human interactions. They want a school that tells a strong story of what its values are – a commitment to real learning, results being important but not a defining feature, and a rich experience of the arts, sport, other extracurricular activities, and leadership that shows it is not too compliant to a national fixation with mechanistic measures. We can afford to be bolder, therefore, in keeping performance tables in perspective.

2. Performance tables are an exercise in statistics with constantly shifting goalposts

Today’s statistics tell us that the number of schools falling below the "floor standard" has increased. But this is chiefly because of changes to the way that Attainment 8 and Progress 8 have been calculated as a result of GCSE reforms. In today’s statistical release, the DfE itself says these changes are the main reason for more schools being below the floor standard. This is not a surprise. Everyone knew this would happen. Education Datalab wrote on this issue in a blog in October. And yet the floor standard has been applied to these shifting sands with the resulting unfairness that more schools now find themselves on the wrong side of the bar because of changes in statistical methodology.

3. There is also a good news story in today’s statistics – one which has the more robust basis of being measured over the course of the past seven years

It shows that the gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has narrowed by 10 per cent since 2011. It’s a significant achievement and it is down to the hard work, dedication and professionalism of our school leaders and teachers, the governors and parents who support our schools, and, indeed, the wider communities. Let’s not forget also that nine out of 10 schools in England are now judged as "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted.

Anyone who works in or with schools knows that they are about intangible things that aren’t easily measured – real learning, relationships, kindness and courtesy. No school is the sum of its byzantine algorithm, of a single number. Inspection mustn’t be built on such narrow metrics, nor communities and their schools judged by such things.

At the moment, accountability measures push schools to focus on the things that may matter in the Westminster bunker. But, as the poet taught us, "these things shall pass", and I sense a growing impatience from governors and parents, employers and teachers that the sum of a child’s achievement in school is so crudely reduced to a number.

The mixed message in the new GCSE grading scale of 4 being a “standard pass” and 5 being a “strong pass” (and the performance measure for schools) is a case in point. What are pupils, parents and employers meant to make of this situation? A GCSE grade 4 is a fantastic achievement, so why introduce an element of needless confusion?

Our communities, of course, expect us to explain, interpret and challenge data. And that is something we have had to become increasingly accustomed to doing. But far more than that, they look to us to provide an education which is broad, enriching and stimulating, an education which cannot be defined by statistics.

Today’s figures should, therefore, be used to open up rather than close down conversations about our schools and education more broadly. That is what we most need to remember when the league table circus rolls briefly into town and then, until next year, heads off again.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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