League table failings

21st January 2005 at 00:00
The row over the Government's assigning of league-table points scores to subjects from physics to cake decorating should not be seen simply as another expression of snobbery against vocational subjects.

Much of the coverage over the past week has carried strong overtones of Britain's long-standing prejudice towards non-academic courses, but behind the controversy lies a more fundamental criticism: the dangers of putting great weight on a single statistic as a guide to the performance of schools and the education system as a whole.

Though some may grimace at the Independent Schools Council's comment that measuring academic and vocational courses is like comparing apples with candyfloss, in essence it is incontrovertible.

How can anyone seriously claim that it is possible to provide objective measures of the relative merits, on a points scale from 1 to 220, of maths against, say bakery or car maintenance?

The subjects are just different, and it is a mistake to even try to compare them. So why does anyone need to do so? The answer, of course, is that if vocational qualifications were not included in the Government's headline measure of school performance, there would be little incentive for secondaries to teach them.

One statistic, the proportion of a school's pupils achieving five A stars to C at GCSE or equivalent, has become the be-all-and-end-all in any assessment of secondary schools' quality.

It contributes not just to league- table scores, but to inspection judgments, teachers' pay and ultimately, to whether schools stay open or have to close. Even other measures, such as value-added scores, centre on this one statistic.

Ministers cannot exclude courses from this figure without laying themselves open to the charge that these qualifications are then deemed less worthwhile.

They could try introducing separate statistical measures for different types of courses. But many newspapers and parents would just focus on those relating to academic ones.

The trouble is that the more complicated the measure becomes, the harder it is for parents to understand, which effectively defeats the purpose of the exercise.

It also means schools have incentives to put pupils on vocational courses worth many points even if they might be better off doing another qualification.

Perhaps the answer is to put more emphasis on qualitative judgements of school performance, rather than on statistical data. If this controversy has emphasised that all statistics have their weaknesses, it might actually have done schools a favour.

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