Tables: a sensible way to compare the market

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Yes they have their flaws, but how else can we suitably measure school performance?

Do you need car insurance? Want to change your mortgage or gas supplier? Get a loan or park your savings? If you do, the chances are you will heed the advice of that irritating Slavonic ferret that's always on television and use a comparison website to see what's what. How about choosing a school? Would you peruse league tables to inform your choice or do you recoil in horror at the thought that education can be packaged and assessed in the same way as contents insurance?

Clearly a lot of people in education think that school league tables are instruments of the devil. The real target of the Sats boycott, after all, wasn't the tests, it was the ultimate use to which they were put: the tables. Unfortunately for purists, the new Government has no intention of dumping this very public means of assessment. Education Secretary Michael Gove told The TES last week that league tables, albeit capable of reform, were here to stay.

Mr Gove's candid advocacy will infuriate many, but he is right to stick by league tables despite their flaws, which, to be fair, are not inconsiderable. For starters, they confer advantage on the advantaged: raw exam results can be a crude expression of social background as much as academic achievement. Attempts to redress this bias with contextual value added scores have been only partially successful and are open to abuse and game-playing. Indeed, by far the worst aspect of league tables is that instead of being a gauge they have morphed into a goal: they have become the point of education, not the means by which it is assessed. It's like Jeremy Clarkson slavering over the prospect of a car passing its MOT rather than spouting superlatives about its performance.

But if the shortcomings of league tables have been well rehearsed, their benefits have been deliberately obscured, not least by union leaders allergic to sunlight. What other criteria exist that objectively, if imperfectly, measure a school's performance other than exam results? Local gossip? The considered opinion of estate agents? Folklore? In inspectors do we solely trust? Lest we forget, the status quo ante was hardly ideal - a lack of data masked failures and ignored improvements.

There is something profoundly undemocratic about this urge to deprive parents, teachers and pupils of meaningful information about the state of their local school. They have a right to know. To pretend that it isn't the data that offend but the rankings into which they are marshalled is disingenuous. Without benchmarking, without the context offered by the performance of a school's peers, the data are meaningless, decipherable only by experts. How elitist is that?

Yes, on one level it is absurd to reduce the value of a school to a number and rank it alongside others and yes, it is partial and can be unfair. But most of us are happy to consult a list when making decisions about cars, houses, hospitals and universities without dwelling on the caveats. Why should schools be the exception?

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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