England seems stuck with performance data, so marginalising them seems to be the way forward, says Joe Hallgarten
School performance tables are not only accepted by politicians, they are celebrated. The Prime Minister recently boasted: "There is now more performance information published about British schools than anywhere else in the world." Where schools have led, other public services are following.
But as England becomes the only country in the UK to retain such tables, it is time to ask if they have outlived their usefulness. The tables were introduced by a Tory government that saw public services as inefficient, unresponsive and prone to producer capture.
Labour sees tables and targets as the simplest means to justify more education spending, giving the appropriate bang for the Treasury's buck. It has promoted the importance of examination results as key performance indicators, thus polarising the debate over the efficacy of league tables. Performance indicators change an organisation's priorities. That is their purpose.
Some of their effects may have been benign; they have forced schools to focus on the mission of "continuous improvement". The concern occurs when such indicators skew priorities to the extent that other, normally less measurable goals are relegated.
For instance, tables have given a clear incentive to school practices of selecting pupils in and out. The four-fold rise in exclusions in the 1990s must in part be blamed on a combination of tables and open enrolment. Pupil behaviour did not get four times worse in only a few years.
Another effect has been the over-targeting of resources on borderline pupils. In recent years, Year 6 pupils on Level 3 and Year 11 pupils at the GCSE grade CD interface may have had more money spent on them than any private school pupil. Modifications to performance tables using points scores so that every child counts may help prevent this. Yet the existence of booster classes symbolises the problem with tables.
Curricula and pedagoguery have been narrowed to focus on the measurements that performance tables value. At key stage 2, there is anxiety not only that non-core subjects are being marginalised but that areas within them are also suffering. A final complaint is that tables ensure that summative assessment is prioritised over formative methods even though the latter can contribute far more to learning.
In changing teaching and learning, the tables have changed teachers. Whatever boost they give to schools at the top of the tables, they probably do more damage to the morale of teachers in the so-called worst schools. We must find a way to give public servants and service-users ownership of the success criteria by which they are judged.
Parental behaviour has been affected far less. Surveys show that although parental awareness of tables is high, they are not a priority when choosing a school. Tables are used mainly to rule out schools that perform particularly poorly rather than to select the best performers.
They are increasingly used by the public to make snap judgments, by Ofsted to make pre-judgments and by newspapers to make headlines. At a time when thinking is required about the future of learning, tables have narrowed and oversimplified the debate.
Abolition in England is unlikely. A government on a "four years to deliver on public services" mission could not scrap the tables which could demonstrate this. Like many aspects of devolution, their abolition elsewhere in Britain offers England blame-free test-beds, which any government would be foolish not to learn from. Tables can be made fairer but value-added data will be value-laden and therefore subject to criticism.
In the long term, the best way to abolish tables will be to render them irrelevant through higher-quality information about schools and pupils.
The more sophisticated other accountability mechanisms become, from performance management to school self-evaluation, the more meaningless, crude and flawed the tables will seem. The role of government must be to downplay the importance of these tables. This would be a major shift for a government that stakes its credibility on them. Yet this is the problem. The time has come to take the politics out of tables.
Joe Hallgarten is senior education research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. A fuller version appears in the institute's journal "New Economy" Analysis, 22, 23