'Bogus' league tables

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Teacher trainers are furious with the way they are ranked by one of their own. Phil Revell reports

An annual league table of teacher trainers has been branded meaningless and pseudo-scientific by other academics. This year, the table, compiled by Professor Alan Smithers, ranked the University of York 61st out of 73. But York academic Steven Gorard, an expert on education statistics, argues that the tables conflate figures and have no value as a consumer guide to the best teacher training courses.

"This is pseudo-scientific - the figures do not mean anything," he says.J Alan Smithers, professor of education at the independent University of Buckingham, has been publishing the table for many years. It is given wide coverage in the national press.

The table judges an institution on three sets of figures: its Ofsted report, the qualifications students bring on entry to their course, and how quickly graduates enter teaching after leaving.

The 2005 tables placed Oxford and Cambridge first and second. London's South Bank university got what Professor Smithers describes as "the wooden spoon". "We give an equal weighting to the data," he says. "If a teacher doesn't have expertise in what they are teaching it is hard to see how they can be effective - and the best indicator is their subject background. It is only a broad-brush indication, but it seems to me to be fair."

But institutions at the bottom see their position as anything but fair.

Durham, at the top of most higher education indicators, came 64th in the Smithers table. "I feel tremendously disappointed to see Durham's name in this position," says Professor Lynn Newton, head of Durham's school of education.J"We are in the top 10 for the quality of our applications and last year we had our secondary Ofsted and gained a 2, which is good.

"I would hope that people considering coming to Durham might take a little more notice of the THES (Times Higher Education Supplement) tables, which show Durham to be one of Britain's leading universities."

The Open University came 67th in the Smithers table. "I think people know the game that is being played," says Steve Hutchinson, its PGCE director.

"We are certainly not in the bottom 10 for Ofsted; we get 2s and 1s."

Mr Hutchinson points out that the OU's entire mission is to offer flexible higher education courses to people who might otherwise not go on to university. "Students can start at any one of six points in the year, and so they finish at different times, which means that some do wait for a post," he explains.

"Many are not in a position to up sticks and take their family to a new job in a new area. Our students may have to wait longer to get a job, but once in post we think they stay longer. I'd be interested in finding out from other providers how many of their students are in their jobs 10 years after they graduate."

Mr Hutchinson argues that the quality of a student's academic background on entry is an "irrelevance". "The most important issue is the standard they demonstrate whilst they are on the course," he says.

Academics point out that, by giving equal weight to entry standards and employment after graduation, the tables could be discriminatory, penalising institutions such as the OU, which recruits from mature students.

It is also well known that teaching jobs are more difficult to find in the North East. Both Durham and York argue that to focus on employment figures distorts their league position.

Professor Smithers is robust in his own defence. "If the OU is training people in the wrong bits of the country, then people need to know that," he says. He bases his tables on figures published by the Teaching and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), but the agency rejects any suggestion that the Smithers table has any kind of official sanction.

A spokesman says: "Professor Smithers is given access to the same data as any other member of the public - material published on our website as initial teacher training providers' profiles. As his report clearly states, neither his methodology or findings are endorsed by us."

The TDA, previously the Teacher Training Agency, did once attempt to produce a quality assessment of teacher training providers beyond that published by Ofsted. The agency commissioned York's Steven Gorard to attempt the comparison. But the research exercise was abandoned.

"We did a multi-variate statistical analysis," says Mr Gorard, "but we found that it was impossible to judge the differences between institutions in terms of their effectiveness - there are too many variables."

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