Cup, not league (tables)

25th January 2013 at 00:00

You know you are in bleak and unforgiving January when pupils make arch comments about your presumed new aftershave ("Christmas present from the wife was it, Sir?") and you feel obliged to explain that your sweet new fragrance is not eau de cologne but essence of de-icer. In the early morning gloom I had aimed at the windscreen but had shot in entirely the wrong direction. "Just go back to your bed, Petty!" the stars above were surely telling me at 7am in January.

Even without such humiliation this is my least favourite month of the year. There are, however, traditionally one or two beacons amid the darkness, one of which is the FA Cup third round, that enticing stage in the competition when some of the best teams in the land have to mix with footballing lowlife.

The cup is a much more open and exhilarating contest than the league. League table success has become disproportionately influenced by finance and by the ability to select the very best. (Fellow teachers, you may know of a similar league table.) But the FA Cup still provides a chance for other important human qualities to prevail: team spirit, courage, creativity, improvisation, opportunism, good fortune.

The Department for Education (DfE) should similarly compare and contrast league with cup. It, too, should start by rejecting school league tables when they also appear in this, the most delightful of months. Flawed and misleading from the outset, the tables are now even more discredited by the Gove EBac randomiser and by last summer's Ofqual grade adjustments in English. League tables have become the bitches of Spreadsheet Man and his Excel formulae sidekicks, with the whole enterprise beginning to display all the features of a decaying, corrupt and increasingly crazed empire. Take, for instance, the new "local authority league" - a sure sign that the end is nigh.

League tables' main legacy is to make secondary schools too obsessed with trying to "cure" all the grade-D "devil children". Are all those compulsory extra revision classes really the best way to make young people independent, creative and resourceful enough to thrive in a global labour market?

The DfE should instead launch a much more open-ended and uplifting "Schools' Knock-Out Cup" competition, administered by the very people whose spreadsheet skills are wasted on formulating all those damaging league tables. About 15 rounds of cup ties would be needed to whittle 30,000-plus schools down to the final two, with each round featuring a different challenge for the paired schools. The first set of ties might consist of, say, a first-to-solve mathematical puzzle, the second a darts match, the third a cross-country run. Teams from each school would be generated at random from the school roll, a different group for each round.

Michaels Wilshaw and Gove could then go live online to pull out the balls for the first round. Think of the tension as each school waits to find out their opponents. "OMG! We've got Winchester College at home!" Ahh, the romance and glamour of the cup. Unbeatable.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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