Five million things to know about schools

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Mr Gove launches education's answer to Go Compare

Michael Gove is always prepared to ruffle a few feathers with his market-driven reforms, so it is fair to assume that he was not expecting everyone to be happy when he promised the education equivalent of a consumer price-comparison website. The site - hailed by the education secretary as Go Compare for schools - became a reality this week with a searchable databank holding details of England's 22,000 state schools.

For the first time, the Department for Education says, users can compare up to five local schools side-by-side against criteria such as exam performance and per-pupil funding. Besides the headline GCSE or KS2 scores, the estimated five million pieces of data will also tell you how many teachers work in each school, how many children speak English as a second language, how much is spent on supply teachers and admin - right down to catering and energy costs.

Mr Gove believes arming parents with this barrage of data is essential for true choice in the market, and argues that transparency will drive up standards overall. Predictably enough, it has not been warmly received by the teaching unions, whose complaint is the same as for league tables - that figures taken out of context can be misleading and unhelpful.

Yet even those who support the idea have pointed to what they say are serious flaws in the system.

A particular criticism is that this hard data can only be truly useful if integrated with the "softer" findings from Ofsted inspections. But the DfE's Compare Schools tool does not even show the most recent Ofsted rating, and the link to the full report is not easy to find.

There are also gaping holes in the data, such as a total absence of expenditure figures for many academies. The DfE admits the service is not yet complete, but insists that is no reason not to make the site live. It intends to update it as more information trickles through from schools.

One headteacher told TES she found the site so confusing she gave up trying to use it. Kenny Frederick, head of George Green's School in the Isle of Dogs, east London, said: "I spent about 20 minutes trying to navigate it without success. Frankly, I wonder how many of our parents will (a) be able to find it, (b) be able to use it, (c) will know what it tells them when they do."

And she recoils at the idea that this type of data should be used to judge the quality of education on offer at her school. "Inner-city schools are always going to come out worse from this kind of thing," she said. "It will put schools like mine in a negative category because we are well funded but the outcomes don't mirror that. We're in one of the poorest parts of London. It doesn't tell the real story of what we do."

Heads insist it is not the principle of transparency they object to, but the suggestion that figures alone are what matter. "I think a lot of very good schools will suffer as a result of this data being published," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "People will be looking at the headline indicators rather than the real story about whether it's a good school. Choosing a school is not like buying an insurance policy or a holiday. It's much more subjective than that. Data only asks questions. Parents need to go and see for themselves what the school's doing, what the ethos is like."

Some educationalists, on the other hand, suggest that parents would be better served by commercial operators using the same information. Compare Schools, they predict, could be eclipsed by an equivalent of the popular Dr Foster health website, which helps patients compare hospitals with details such as operation success rates (see panel, left).

Former Number 10 policy adviser Robert Hill, who was also special adviser to Charles Clarke when he was education secretary, was cautious. "I have no problem at all with the Department making all the data on schools transparent," he said. "However, we know that parents are concerned about the culture and atmosphere of a school as well as high performance. That's what Ofsted can do - it peels back the onion to look at qualitative aspects of what a school is doing.

"There is a huge abundance of data here but the acid test is whether parents find it useful. And, even more importantly, if they do, will it change the way heads run their schools?"

Data goldmine

The publication of increasing volumes of schools data could be a golden opportunity to make money, if the example of Dr Foster is anything to go by, according to one policy expert.

The healthcare analysis company was set up by two journalists seeking to exploit the mass of statistics produced by the NHS, using a method called the Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratio to compare death rates after various procedures.

It has published the annual Hospital Guide since 2001 and there is also a popular website.

Modernising health secretary Alan Milburn ordered hospitals to co-operate with the research, and his successor Patricia Hewitt liked it so much that the Department of Health invested pound;12 million in a joint venture, the Dr Foster Intelligence consultancy, in 2006.


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