Dumbing down statistics

20th April 2001 at 01:00
For the past decade, education has been ruled by published statistics - tables of examination results, attendance and absence figures, school leaver destination and costs per pupil. The information was originally justified on the grounds that it provided a better service to parents.

More accurately, it was an important element in the Conservative Government's political aim to create a market in state education. It is not therefore surprising that, in a recent Scottish Executive survey into parents' views on Education Department publications, parents expressed themselves as remarkably disinterested in all these tables and saw them more as management tools.

Quite naturally, parents focused their attention on information that was directly relevant to their child and hisher progress.

Moreover, the annual publication of statistics has had little real impact in terms of delivering change, despite all the costs and effort involved.

Figures on attendance and absence have remained remarkably stable. Costs have varied as governments have varied the amount of money they put into education, and examination results have continued to improve steadily across the board, with year on year variations in particular schools.

Recent decisions in the Wales and Northern Ireland administrations to cease the publication of such statistics have led many in Scotland to hope for a similar decision here. However, Jack McConnell is on record as saying he is strong supporter of them.

He argues that they act as a stimulus to schools to improve their performance to the standards of other similar schools. Then there is the freedom of information argument: if this information is available, how can anyone justify keeping it secret? Parents have a right to know.

However, there is publication and there is publication. The school league tables, as they have colloquially been called, have been given a high profile launch every year, often accompanied by a ministerial statement.

This gives them added significance. These are no ordinary statistics; these are important statistics. Contrast their publication with the way the proportion of GDP spent on education is published - now who knows where to find that important measure of the Government's performance?

However, maybe there is at last a good compromise solution to the desire to make information available and while not making it unduly important.

This year, the statistics on school costs have been published in the Statistical Bulletin series which is also the home for such important information as the numbers of pupils taking free school meals.

The information is public, but its status is clearly that of interesting statistical information - no more, no less. Can we hope that, in future, the executive will follow its own lead and publish all league table information in this way?

Judith Gillespie Findhorn Place, Edinburgh

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