End or explain 'misleading' league tables, colleges plead

1st March 2013 at 00:00
They protest to UK Statistics Authority about post-16 data

Colleges are calling for "misleading" new post-16 league tables to be stripped from the list of official statistics unless parents and students are given a guide on how to interpret them.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has written to the UK Statistics Authority, which oversees the production of official statistics, to call for a review of the key stage 5 performance tables after they were overhauled by ministers rather than statisticians.

"We have a set of official statistics which are poorly explained, which are widely disseminated, which are presented in a very misleading way and which were changed in 2012 on the instruction of ministers rather than their statistical experts," Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said in his letter to Andrew Dilnot, the chairman of the authority.

The complaint comes after new league tables were produced with 17 separate measures for post-16 exam performance, instead of the three main measures used previously. Colleges objected that the previous tables had been trialled and modelled carefully and were widely accepted, while the new ones have been produced with little effective consultation.

Students and parents have received no guidance about how to interpret all the different measures to compare institutions effectively.

Meanwhile, several decisions risk creating a bias against colleges. The most prominent measure relies on the proportion of students achieving AAB in "facilitating subjects", supposedly those that enable access to Russell Group universities. But universities recommend only that students need two of these subjects, meaning colleges with high academic achievement but a wider choice of courses - such as economics, philosophy or computer science - are penalised.

Colleges are also marked down if students mix A levels and vocational subjects and therefore do not achieve the three A levels. They have even found themselves judged on students' poor AS-level attainment at school if they drop out after a year and then enrol in college.

The letter from the AoC presents the results of three institutions in Hampshire to highlight how small school sixth forms fare better than large high-performing institutions such as Peter Symonds College in Winchester. Despite having more than 50 students with offers from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, only 14 per cent of students at Peter Symonds achieved AAB grades in the facilitating subjects in 2012.

"It's a very artificial measure that tells you very little," principal Neil Hopkins said. "In sheer numerical terms, we educate more of the students who go to the top universities than any of the private schools do.

"It's got to the stage where there's so much information that I think it's very difficult for a layperson to be able to interpret (the league tables)."

Mr Doel called for the UK Statistics Authority to ensure that either the Department for Education provides a full, objective commentary or that the new league tables are no longer described as official statistics. "It is in the interests of students, parents, schools, colleges, the media and wider public - including the UK Statistics Authority - that these statistics are presented with the same rigour as other government data," Mr Doel said. "That is why we are seeking a review of this publication."

The issues raised by the AoC could suggest a breach in the code of practice for official statistics on a number of grounds, from the requirements to publish methodologies and the reasoning applied, to informing users about the quality of statistics, providing commentary and analysis, making statistics easy to use and consulting users about changes to statistics.

A spokeswoman for the UK Statistics Authority confirmed receipt of the complaint by colleges and said that the body will investigate and respond to their criticisms.

The DfE has defended its approach to the new league tables, saying that it aims to publish more raw data so parents and students have better information on which to base their decisions. "We've been publishing more and more of the raw data over the past two years," a spokeswoman told TES. "This is about transparency, not attacking different subjects."

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