School leaders can continue to complain about simplistic league tables or devise better ones themselves, writes Ray Tarleton
Who really cares about performance tables? Headteachers do. Some view them with a mixture of paranoia and cynicism, believing many parents regard them as the ultimate arbiter of standards. Others glory in their league-table positions.
We know their limitations but they are an annual source of concern. The test and examination data measure some aspects of a school's success but their importance appears overwhelming. Many feel they are being graded and ranked like supermarket produce.
But are tables really influential in parents' minds? While they may look with curiosity at them, there is a growing awareness on the part of the public that they conceal more than they reveal.
In fact, there is evidence that tables are far from the most important factor for parents when choosing a school. A TES poll last year found that parents rated tables as less important as a source of information than visiting prospective schools, seeking advice from other parents, reading the relevant Office for Standards in Education report or looking at the school prospectus on its website.
Experienced teachers and heads know that word of mouth, the views of children who attend, and ways in which schools celebrate their youngsters'
success, can be more influential than league tables.
In this context, the tables are beginning to look simplistic and, frankly, rather boring. Schools are becoming increasingly complex and tables based around end-of- key-stage successes look more and more superficial. Indeed, as schools introduce out-of-age testing for cohorts, the data supplied in traditional tables will make direct comparisons between schools difficult, if not impossible.
Not surprisingly, at any headteacher conference where we have the ear of ministers, one of the first questions is always about the possible abolition of the tables. Civil servants continue to repeat the official line. These measures are necessary and here to stay. There can be no excuse, we are told, for withholding information from parents.
So, dare I say it? Ministers are right. We cannot justify concealing information in a society which values openness. Even if the Department for Education and Skills decided to follow the practices of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and abolish the tables, schools would still publish their results. Comparisons could still be made.
But there is another way. Instead of campaigning for the removal of tables, why not offer more information rather than less? We now have the collective power, insights and, possibly, the will to redesign them. We could surely be creative enough to provide answers to the sorts of questions parents ask on visits.
Individual school results published side by side in an attractive, consumer-friendly format could be set up on a website. They would report the examination and test data as at present. Their interest would come from the range of performance measures not currently featured.
What would you include? To get the debate going, here are some suggestions.
We would be restricted to a number-based system, but why not provide details of average class sizes, numbers achieving early end-of-key-stage success and, for primary schools, the percentage of children moving to their first-choice secondary?
We could put numbers to parental attendance at consultation evenings, (measure their performance for a change), foreign visitors hosted, children taking part in residential or off-site visits and perhaps even extra-curricular activities. It would be easy to record the amount of external funding raised, the percentage of support staff to teachers, even the number of advanced-skills teachers employed. We could add staying-on rates at 16 and university take-up.
As we move towards self-evaluation, it would be relatively easy to agree point scores for success. These could be validated by the new School Improvement Partners (SIPs) or the current external monitors. Why not have a score which reflects a school's contribution to its community? It would certainly sharpen self-evaluation.
Raw figures can be misleading and some would argue that we should provide fewer, not more. Information is always controversial because it is open to misinterpretation. But, generally, the more information is available, the greater the clarity and understanding.
We have an obligation to inform. A service funded by the community has to be open and accountable. Imperfect as these alternatives might be, they would surely be more interesting than the dull and increasingly predictable tables we have at present. By offering a range of information, they would move the debate on to new ground. The time is right to shift.
Perhaps the new School Profile will move in these directions, but why leave such important matters to the DfES? We can continue to complain about the present system or do something about it. Let's create our own measures of success, devise new tables and put them on the internet for all to see.
Barracking from the sidelines will not shift the Government one inch.
Turning the tables on them just might.
Ray Tarleton is national co-ordinator of the Leadership Network, a group of primary and secondary heads linked to the National College for School Leadership and principal of South Dartmoor community college, Devon