Performance tables are invaluable, but must be more inclusive, says Margaret Hodge , chair of the education select committee.
We still hear grumbles about league tables. But they are here to stay and rightly so. The challenge is to see how they can be improved to better meet our objectives - to raise standards, promote equality and foster excellence.
I have always supported opening schools to public account by publishing data on their performance. In 1990, when the Inner London Education Authority was abolished and before league tables became a contentious political issue, I was council leader in Islington. We decided to publish the reading test results for 11-year-olds transferring to secondary schools. These tables linked performance to the socio-economic background of the children, so they were value added. What they showed was that children from similar backgrounds performed very differently in different schools.
Schools do make a difference - of course, otherwise we might as well all give up. With this information, we can learn from the good practice and focus on improving the poor practice. And for parents, it enables them to make choices based on facts rather than playground gossip.
So I am not surprised that league tables are one Tory education reform which has proved to be a success. It seems incredible now that this information was not widely available only a few years ago. Parents, schools and policy-makers have all benefited from the publication of school results. Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has rightly made it clear there will be no turning back.
But this does not mean that the current system is perfect. There are steps we can take to improve their effectiveness and usefulness. The critics of league tables are correct to say that the current tables encourage schools to focus on a minority of pupils to boost their league position.
In secondary school, the attention of the press and public focuses on the percentage of pupils who gain five or more A-C grades. This means that schools can climb the leagues by concentrating their efforts on pupils who are expected to be on the borderline between C and D grades. Similarly in primary schools, it is the percentage of pupils reaching the required grade which is important. So with a class of 30, one need only concentrate on helping three more children to achieve the required grade to jump 10 percentage points in the league tables.
This is clearly unfair to both more and less able pupils. It is incompatible with our stated aim of education for everyone. A policy designed to help parents could actually damage the education of their children. Would you be happy if your child was neglected because of these perverse incentives? I am not suggesting that teachers up and down the country are targeting their efforts at children who could help their league standing. Many would instinctively recoil from such action. But the temptation is there. As the pressure for results intensifies, it will be easy for teachers to fall into the trap. The ambitious targets the Government has set at key stage 2 will increase that pressure.
So what can be done? It would be stupid to throw the baby out with the bath water. League tables are too important to be scrapped. What we need is results which give every child equal weight.
I believe we should calculate the tables using the average results of each child at the school. A points system similar to that used at A-level could be used to grade each child's results. The schools total would then be divided by the number of children in the school year.
Currently, if schools do not enter pupils who are not expected to do well at GCSE then these pupils are excluded from the tables. It is not right that schools can benefit from not entering some pupils. This change would ensure that the league table accurately reflect the achievements of all a school's pupils.
I would also like to see the results of pupils who gain level 3 and level 5 and 6 qualifications published. This would ensure that schools' work with both gifted and challenging pupils is recognised.
There is a case for much more information being added to the tables. Figures on teacher absenteeism, staff turnover, graffiti and parent participation would all enhance the information available. You can learn a lot about the atmosphere of a school from its appearance and the attitude of its staff.
The Government has already indicated its willingness to include value-added data in its tables. This is a welcome change which will help ensure that schools are judged on their performance not on their intake. It will also put the spotlight on schools which are in the middle of the league tables but should be doing much better. However, we must be careful with how we use value-added tables. It is all too easy to blame home background for low outcomes. Children are entitled to expect to attain certain literacy and numeracy standards, whatever their circumstances. We cannot simply write off another generation because of a disadvantaged home background.
The format of performance tables should not be set in stone. Our guiding principle must be to search for new solutions which work and we must not be frightened to change what doesn't. League tables have been a success but there is definite room for improvement. Just like schools, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Margaret Hodge is Barking and Dagenham MP and chair of the Commons education select committee