The Issue: Beyond league tables - Big Apple offers a healthy alternative

19th September 2008 at 01:00
A system developed in the US could be the perfect solution to increasingly convoluted UK performance tables. Robert Hill reports

School league tables are in a mess - practically and intellectually. As The TES reported last month, there are to be nine extra columns in the annual rankings, covering everything from the performance of the most academic pupils at key stage 3 to the "added value" achieved in Years 12 and 13. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says the tables will now feature as many as 44 indicators.

It is questionable how useful parents will find the new format - or how the tables will dovetail with school profiles. Maintained schools are feeling oppressed by ever more accountability, while independent schools are beginning to withdraw from the system.

But even if performance tables were abolished, it is inconceivable that we would revert to a time when parents were unable to make comparisons between schools. We live in an age where consumers expect to have instant access to lots of information on the quality of goods and services before they make a choice about what to use or buy.

Even the Conservatives, who have criticised the tables, set great store by empowering users of public services to exert pressure for improvements by ensuring they have access to real-time performance data.

The Government has also recognised the need for change. In June, as the Department for Children, Schools and Families consulted on changes to the performance tables, the Cabinet Office published ideas on the longer-term future of public services. A little-noticed section commented favourably on the idea of a balanced scorecard for schools, as introduced in New York city by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and education supremo Joel Klein.

The balanced scorecard was originally developed in the early 1990s for business. It enabled companies to assess non-financial measures, integral to a company's success, alongside traditional balance-sheet results. This gave managers a more balanced view of how the organisation was performing. Significantly, the Department of Health is introducing the concept for primary care trusts in England this autumn.

The New York scorecard was developed in collaboration with school leaders, teachers, parents, community leaders and researchers - itself an object lesson in how to effect change. It has five aspects that are relevant to the debate on school accountability in the UK:

It is outcomes based: School leaders are given autonomy over the approaches used to improve aspiration and attainment, then held to account on outcomes not inputs.

It combines transparency with complexity: Although the overall grade structure (A-D or an F) is easy to understand, it is based on a wealth of statistical data similar to that which underpins the RAISEonline and Fischer Family Trust systems.

It is focused: It is clear about the four or five areas where improvement is most important - although data on other issues such as science and graduation rates are held separately and are also publicly available.

It provides an incentive for schools to improve attainment for the most deprived: a concern shared by both the Government and the Opposition in this country.

It supports a bottom-up approach to school improvement: New York has recognised that a top-down model, based on a central department pushing knowledge and best practice down to schools, has run its course. The scorecard promotes a school-led improvement strategy. Behind it is a management system that shares knowledge horizontally between schools by providing information on results and effective teaching and learning strategies.

How might headteachers react to the introduction of a balanced scorecard in the UK? Malcolm Trobe, head of Malmesbury Secondary School in Wiltshire until July, has just become director of policy for ASCL. He recognises that there will always be a government desire to have an easy-to- understand measure for overall school performance. "The balanced scorecard approach offers an interesting alternative to the existing accountability measures," says Mr Trobe. He points out that, although the scorecard system compares pupils with their peers, one strength of the approach is that it is baselined in Year 1, so over time there could be no schools in the lower grades.

Mr Trobe also thinks that, given the large amount of data in the UK, the input indicator areas could be broader than those used in New York.

For example, a UK version of the scorecard might follow the New York model of surveys and attendance data for the school environment category, but the attainment section could cover functional skills, the proportion of pupils gaining five good GCSEs (including English and maths), as well as the percentage gaining at least one.

The progress section could report on value added between key stages. In each category, the performance of a school would be compared with that of similar schools.

The closing the achievement gap category could either track the progress of the 30 per cent least able in each school or follow the New York example and award credits for pupils with defined levels of deprivation or who come from certain ethnic minority groups.

The scorecard system is impressive in its apparent simplicity, but Mr Trobe sounds a warning: "The devil will be in the detail and getting the balance of indicators correct will be essential if the scorecard is to be a fair reflection of school performance."

It's clear that league tables cannot continue as they are. Consent for them is shrinking. We need a new, more intelligent way of practising school accountability. The balanced scorecard may well provide the way forward. But the Government will need to work with parents and school leaders on the detailed design to make sure we have a system that commands broad support and will stand the test of time.

Robert Hill is a former adviser to Tony Blair and Charles Clarke. He works as a public policy consultant. "Achieving More Together", his research on partnership working between schools, was published by the ASCL earlier this year.


The balanced scorecard reports on schools under four headings:

- School environment combines data and independently conducted surveys of parents, pupils and teachers to report on attendance, safety, academic expectations, engagement and communication. This accounts for 15 per cent of a school's overall score.

- Student performance evaluates pupils' skills in English language and maths and makes up 30 per cent of the overall score.

- Student progress measures average pupil improvement in English language and maths over the year and comprises 55 per cent of the overall score.

- Closing the achievement gap enables schools to earn additional credits if high-need pupils in five defined categories make exemplary gains in performance.

On the first three measures, schools are compared with a "family" of similar schools as well as with all schools in New York city, and this provides the basis for the scores.

A third of the score for each element is based on the comparison with all the city schools and two-thirds from benchmarking against the family of schools. Any additional credits earned under "closing the achievement gap" are then added.

Schools are assigned a letter grade - A-D or an F - based on their overall score. In 2006-07, a quarter of all New York schools achieved the highest rating of A.

Report cards are published at the start of each school year. Schools earn financial rewards for performing well and are liable to intervention measures if they perform poorly.

The scorecard system operates alongside a system of Quality Reviews - the equivalent of Ofsted inspections.

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