Parents are not swayed by tables

16th December 2005 at 00:00
Newspapers are wasting their time publishing school league tables because parents put "limited value" on them, a report for the statistics watchdog concludes.

Parents want to know how their own child is doing and out of general interest how the school is doing, but even then statistics are often not the best means for that.

It is commonly assumed that prospective parents want to see league tables of performance but researchers from the National Foundation for Educational Research say that, too, is a myth.

"Most parents said that statistics were of limited value for this and that instead they used word-of-mouth or visits to the schools," they state.

A small number of parents said that in reality they had little choice of school and so statistics were not that helpful.

The researchers note the media's obsession with tables and say that "in some cases the desire for a 'good story' can overcome the need to interpret statistics carefully".

The report on how the four home countries use education statistics emerged this week after analysts at BBC Scotland highlighted confusion in the way schools are obliged to report exam passes. In response, the Scottish Executive has agreed to amend slightly the way it reports the results in June, although it has yet to disclose details.

The Statistics Commission has been in touch with the Executive for some months over how it interprets the figures, as it has been with the other UK countries. Scotland and England are said to be ahead of Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, public access to data has never been greater. The commission says the difficulty lies in interpreting figures and making full use of them.

"There are a few significant gaps and inconsistencies in the otherwise impressive coverage of the statistics, notably in relation to attainmentperformance data in Wales and Northern Ireland," it states.

It called in an NFER team to investigate across Britain and in a 134-page report, published quietly earlier this year, it dismisses the notion that parents want a deluge of information. Governors south of the border "reported only limited need for statistical information about their school".

Both staff and parents agree that statistics are of little interest to the average parent. As one primary head in Wales said: "All parents want is for their children to be happy and it may be one out of 10 who may work in education who may be interested in statistics."

The NFER team recommends that school performance data should be publicly available and presented in a form that attempts to measure the impact of the school on a range of outcomes, taking account of factors outside the school's control, "together with indications of the uncertainty in these measures".

A major concern in Scotland, England and Wales is that pupils with special educational needs may appear to be "dragging down" results. Presentation of school performance data based on cohorts should carry health warnings on numbers with SEN, some suggest.

Leader 14 School Education Statistics: User Perspectives (report no 26) is posted at www.statscom.org.uk.

Auntie knows better

BBC Scotland has persuaded the Executive to review anomalies in the way exam results are communicated.

The proportion of S5 pupils in each shcool achieving Highers, for instance, is given not as a percentage of those who took the exams but as a percentage of those who originally began in S4. As the BBC observes, pupils come and go.

"It is not possible to tell from the published results how many of those who actually sat Highers achieved them," the BBC says

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