League tables are a cause for celebration

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Further education has its own annual cycle. Every January, the post-16 performance tables are published and, inexorably, the Association of Colleges issues a press release to say they aren't fair or - this years'

theme - parents and young people "are being badly misled". (FE Focus, January 20).

The performance tables inevitably benefit sixth forms with high entry criteria and standard two-year A-level students. FE colleges, with five A*-Cs as a rule of entry and a large number of advanced vocational students who only bring two A-levels to the table, are disadvantaged.

A tiny minority of FE colleges have swallowed the logic of the market wholesale. The temptations are strong: put up your entry criteria and be brutally ruthless with your exam entries. This highlights the dangers of the current fashion for public-sector reform. It is outcome-driven. How you achieve these outcomes is subject to less scrutiny. We could make Tower Hamlets college soar up the league table. An average point score per students of 500-600 is perfectly possible and, we are sure, both of our students would be very pleased.

But the choice isn't so stark; we don't have to play the victim and we don't have to bellyache about the injustice of it all. Rather than swallowing the logic of the market, we have, in the words of EP Thompson, to become "all knees and elbows" to create room for something different.

At Tower Hamlets sixth-form college we have begun to improve our standing in the league table. In 2003 our average point score per student stood at 130.6. It rose to 196.1 in 2004 and now stands at 213.

Or, more graphically, two years ago our average advanced-level student left with two A-levels (or equivalent) at grade D. This year, he or she leaves with two D grades and another A-level at grade C. This means a lot to young people in Tower Hamlets: it opens the doors to more universities. It represents a real improvement.

League table data contain a good message to relay in the building. The improvement itself encourages pride in the college and its achievements.

The average points score is also a benchmark. In the coming weeks, our students will be comparing their predicted grades with the average and reflecting on how to achieve or exceed that magic number.

A similar use has been made of the 300 UCAS points marker, the DfES'

definition of a high flier. We openly set this as a target and celebrate its achievement. This jars with some and an accusation of elitism is always lurking but is seriously misguided.

In an inner-city borough like Tower Hamlets, the simple message that such achievement is important and, above all, attainable, is one that has to be made clear to our young people and their parents. 300 points opens the doors of even more universities. It is a curious egalitarianism that queries this objective.

In the middle-class districts of our towns and cities, there is no need to highlight such achievement because it is assumed. In this way, places like Tower Hamlets are different, yet they deserve the same standards and expectations. So national league tables can help us. They challenge us to justify any deviation from the national pattern of four AS-levels and three A2s.

In the inner city, rather than complaining, we have to put such national measures to use for our own purposes. Our knees and elbows need to create a space between an uncritical acceptance of market logic and dispiriting, defensive carping.

Ken Warman is director of Tower Hamlets sixth-form college

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