Ditch league tables, says top head

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Leading independent school leads bid to be rid of 'cancer on the face of education'.One of England's most famous public schools is considering withdrawing from newspaper league tables because its head argues they are a "cancer on the face of education".

Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's School, told a conference on the curriculum he would put the proposal to his governors and parents and hoped other leading independent schools would follow.

He said league tables played mainly to the media's desire to publish rankings, rather than having any benefit for schools themselves. They were accentuating "tick-box" teaching for results.

And with an increasing variety of exams now to be incorporated, including the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U and the International GCSE, comparisons were becoming meaningless.

He said: "League tables are the worst thing to have happened to education. They have delivered education into the hands of the media. I am launching a major consultation exercise with my parents, with my governing body and with my staff to withdraw from them."

He told the Westminster Education Forum conference in London that St Paul's would still publish its GCSE and A-level scores on a website for parents.

But under his proposal, it would not take part in unofficial rankings which newspapers compile using information provided by schools when students get their results.

Dr Stephen said he sympathised with schools that were different to the highly selective school he runs at Barnes in south-west London. Fees are up to pound;22,872 a year.

He said: "My heart goes out to schools which draw from the lowest 30 per cent of the ability range which do not get the credit (in the tables) for the good work they do."

Withdrawing from the rankings would be a significant sacrifice for St Paul's. This year, it emerged as the leading boys' school in England in the Sunday Times tables, an achievement which is celebrated prominently on its website.

Independent schools, although they are acutely conscious of the need to produce good results, are increasingly exercising their independence by opting out of the testing and tables regime.

Some 200 are given lowly rankings in the official government GCSE tables because they take international GCSEs, which are not counted. The Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools has revealed that two thirds of its members did not take part in key stage 2 tests.

Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College in Berkshire, said this week that tables were having a "pernicious and corrupting" effect on education and should be replaced by value-added measures. "League tables based only on exam results are bad for parents, bad for children, bad for teachers and bad for scholols," he said.

Dr Stephen had some praise for the modern exams regime on which the league tables rest. He said attempts to compare modern A-levels with their predecessors from decades ago were misleading. Although today's papers might superficially look easier, in previous years students could simply learn what looked like highly sophisticated answers by heart.

Today's exams were better, in encouraging thinking skills. "Our students are far more flexible in their thinking, if they have had a decent education, than they were 30 years ago," he said.

Colin Seal, of the Department for Children, Families and Schools, told the conference about a new form of testing being carried out in 484 schools. Teachers would have to carry out their own assessments to decide which level each pupil should take. The aim is to reduce teaching to the test.

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