Barriers in the way of progress

26th November 2004 at 00:00
League tables are fine for football, writes Peter Strauss, but unacceptable for a system that should foster success for all.

School league tables are a disaster. They do not provide the public with decent information about the effectiveness of schools. Furthermore, they have produced unintended consequences that are undermining the prospects for developing world-class education in this country.

The most important objection is that the data is dodgy. The cohort sizes are usually so small that the percentage figures are virtually meaningless.

The narrow focus on attainment in English, maths and science utterly fails to do justice to the breadth and richness of the school curriculum, to the distinctive ethos and values, or to the range of experiences that are provided for young people.

There have been various attempts to fiddle around with the presentation of league-table data, in order to take account of "value-added" or pupil mobility, but all these attempts are doomed to failure because they miss the basic point.

It is the stories that lie behind the tables that are important, not just the figures. League tables fail to give adequate information and so do not properly fulfil their supposed role of holding schools to account viewed as a principal reason for retaining them by Sir Cyril Taylor and Conor Ryan on this page last week.

Some aspects of the accountability framework, it is true, have had a positive effect on the quality of teaching and learning: the Office for Standards in Education, for example. However, there is absolutely no evidence that league tables have raised standards. If they did, then the logical and coherent policy would be to introduce them for the foundation stage and key stage 1 as well. The national tests (Sats) themselves are not inherently damaging. Most primary schools make use of the optional Sats in Years 3 to 5 and find the results useful.

There are at least four fundamental problems with league tables, which actually undermine education itself. First, league tables put barriers in the way of including children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. Schools that admit children with profound and complex special needs are punished in terms of their league table position. Some schools at best drag their feet, or at worst refuse to admit a child who brings with them not only their own distinctive needs, but also the inevitable percentage dip in results.

The second problem is the impact league tables have on teachers. Does the publication of dodgy data, which condemns some schools to "the relegation zone", lift the spirits and raise the morale of the profession? No. When teachers see their efforts reduced to some meaningless and inaccurate league-table position, they feel undervalued and undermined.

The third effect, unintended but inevitable, is the impact league tables have on narrowing the curriculum. In primary schools, particularly in Year 6, foundation subjects may be squeezed out by concentration on English, maths and science. League tables give us no credit for maintaining an exciting, rich, creative and diverse curriculum. Is it any wonder some schools - desperate not to slip down the league - end up making learning dull?

The final effect is well understood by those who work in schools: the steady increase in cheating. It covers a wide range of educational malpractice. It encompasses at one end, teaching-to-the-test and cramming.

At the other end, it includes bending the rules on reading test-questions aloud right through to changing answers on children's scripts. It has come about because of the pressure put on teachers by the publication of league tables.

Tables are a perfectly sensible way of providing a structure to the world of football competition. The team's position in the league brings drama to the game. But a truly world-class education system would be based on the guiding principle of success for all. It is clear to just about everyone who has anything to do with schools that league tables have to go. Let us begin a conversation with government about what we shall use instead to make sure our schools are held to account.

To call for the abolition of league tables is not to demand an end to accountability. On the contrary, local communities and taxpayers are entitled to expect the very highest quality of information about school performance. League tables fail to do that. A "school profile" containing pupil performance data, a summary of the school's inspection report and background information on the school's ethos, its distinctive character and curriculum, would provide a much more realistic picture of its effectiveness. Schools should share and benchmark their data with their LEA and with other schools.

When schools minister David Miliband came to meet the newly elected members of the General Teaching Council last summer, the first question we asked him was why he didn't scrap league tables. He replied, "You can't put the genie back in the bottle". Yet, as every school child knows, you can put the genie back in the bottle. You do so by asking the genie for three wishes. Here goes:

* I wish for a minister who will listen to teachers and trust that they, too, want the best for children and young people.

* I wish for a teaching profession that has the courage to stand up for what it believes in.

* I wish for a system of school accountability that is accurate, fair and does not, like league tables, corrupt and undermine the education system.

Peter Strauss is headteacher of Walter Halls primary and nursery school in Nottingham and a member of the General Teaching Council. The GTC's autumn conference, New Relationships: Teacher Learning and Accountability, takes place in London on Monday November 29

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