Coast now to hit jackpot later

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
DID YOU like practical jokes when you were young? Did you giggle when someone hid the student teacher's blackboard duster, so the poor beggar spent 10 minutes searching for it? Did you chuckle at the sight of some hapless pupil wandering round, unknowingly, in a jacket with a sign pinned to the back saying "I am an idiot"?

If so, then prepare to return to the same state of youthful merriment when the greatest practical joke of the decade is played in the next couple of years. You may have tittered at the naive student teacher, but you will slap your thighs with mirth, collapse in gales of laughter, before finally rolling on the floor hysterically, begging for an end to the jolly jape, when the first value-added league tables are published.

The present league tables of "raw scores" reflect a school's intake, not the quality of its teaching. Schools that are low in the tables often have many pupils who speak little or no English. Teachers and pupils are belittled, when they may be running their socks off. I am happy to see proper public information about what schools do for their pupils, through value-added or similar approaches. What I am against is league tables.

Let me explain the mayhem about to unfold. If you rank order thousands of schools on a certain criterion, and then do the same again, using a different one, about half the nation's schools will move up the table and half will go down, apart from the odd one that might, freakishly, stay exactly the same.

Some schools will not move far when tables become value-added, but others will transform. Those at the extremes may move nearer the centre. Now, here comes the hilarious bit. Schools that take a highly- creamed intake will probably sink furthest, and this will be especially noticeable in the early years.

Some parents, fearing the name of Ponsonby-Marjoribanks will be sullied by anything less than full marks, will pay for their five-year-olds to be coached, so they can count up to a million and recognise the letter omega. The school will thus get a high starting score and have difficulty doing well on value-added measures.

Meanwhile, primary schools facing profound disadvantage will flourish. Those taking a large number of children with little or no English will find that their pupils score low on entry, on what will be principally a language test. The children will improve dramatically once their English gets better, and thus the school will do well in the value-added league. I can't wait for it. Scumbag comprehensive and Gasworks primary will sail up the league. Gradgrind academy and Poshville prep school will plummet.

Similar effects always occur whenever raw-score league tables are adjusted in the light of social factors or entry scores. When John Gray of Homerton College took into account the effects of social class in local authority league tables, cities like Liverpool and Manchester soared into the top 10, while some of the leafy glens sank into obscurity. Harrow was robust enough to stay at or near the top whatever was done to the league table - whether it was based on raw scores, statistically adjusted, or whether someone drove a 20-ton juggernaut over it.

You can see the consequences when the first value-added league tables hit the nation like stun grenades. First of all Alicia de Farnes Barnes and Solomon Grundy of the Really Really Rightwing Research Unit will produce a pamphlet saying the new tables are a shameful egalitarian socialist plot. After all, everyone knows that Poshville prep school is excellent, so, if it is not at or near the top of the league table, there must be something dirty afoot.

The refrain will be seized eagerly by the Daily Humbug and the Weekly Liar, despite their advocacy of the market effects of league tables. "Bring back proper league tables that parents really understand," they will say.

My advice to anyone giving baseline tests to five-year-olds is to line them all up at six in the morning, so they are half asleep and all get low scores. Then sit back a few years later and bask in the glory of being an ace "value-adder".

With luck, people will subsequently realise that all league tables are barmy, no more than a bit of fun, a wisp of candy floss. The whole concept will implode under its own pointlessness. Pigs will also fly. In practice, I suspect, value-added tables will be quietly dropped after a while, and raw score tables brought back. Still, there should be a few decent laughs along the way.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today