Silly exam tables actually do harm

11th September 1998 at 01:00
We have reached the third week of education's silly season, the month of the year when newspapers feel an irrational obligation to draw unwarranted conclusions from examination statistics.

The education correspondents - who try to give meaning to the pointless points tables - are far too sensible to believe that they illustrate anything of importance. John O'Leary, the education editor of The Times could hardly have been more dismissive, "The table below shows only the leading A-level scores and is not intended to mark out the 'best' schools. Selective schools, which enjoy advantages over comprehensives in the academic ability of their intake, inevitably fill most of the leading positions." Why, the rational reader is entitled to ask, bother publishing them?

Most of the blame lies with the politicians. Once upon a time, there was a Rhodes-Boyson sort of minister who actually believed that the competition of comparison would encourage or frighten the "less successful" schools into doing better. That, we must assume, was because ministers of that sort lacked the capacity for rational thought. Nobody who can tell a hawk from a handsaw can have very much doubt about why the first 76 schools in the Telegraph's "top 300" GCSE table achieved their eminence. They were all identified with a G for grammar - its quaint old-fashioned way of describing selection.

Not only that. They were, by and large, selective schools which are situated in the more prosperous and secure parts of the country. It might have been news if Bishop Wordsworths, Salisbury, Bournemouth Girls, Dorset and Caistor Grammar, Lincolnshire had not come top of the table. To announce that they had achieved better results than inner-city schools with all-ability intakes - or secondary moderns with the sign at the school gate repainted to included the word "comprehensive" - was simply a waste of newsprint.

It ought to be obvious enough that schools are like computers. What you get out depends on what you put in. But the newspapers - with the tacit support of politicians - persist in comparing the incomparable. It is another example of the way in which society panders to the demands of the articulate middle classes - the families which (wrongly in this case) think that they can identify and then talk their way into a better share of national resources than those which are available to their less self-confident neighbours.

The net result is immensely damaging to the education system as a whole. By spuriously identifying some schools as the "best", the tables imply that those which do not get their names in The Times or Telegraph are "bad" or "worst". It is not only staff morale and pupil esteem which suffers. Parents fight to avoid sending their children to the schools which are designated as failures. The results deteriorate still further. If the phrase had not already been coined, the process might be called a cycle of disadvantage.

The curse of our education system is the obsession with hierarchy - one of the national psychiatric disorders which has prejudiced so much of our history. We, at least subconsciously, want an idea in our minds of good schools and bad. And we cannot get out of the habit of imagining that the price we pay for excellence at the top of the league is inadequacy at the bottom. League tables contribute to that illusion and undermine the government's stated intention of excellence for all.

Nobody suggests that a school's examination results be kept secret. Parents have a right to know the performance of the schools to which their children go. But the league table is the enemy of a thriving education system. Crude comparisons are bad, but "value-added" calculations are barely better. David Blunkett ought to undermine the whole absurdity by using the authority of his office to confirm that they mean nothing.

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