Why we want our own seal on success

League tables cover only a fraction of the story and are riddled with distortions, says Ewan Aitken

ONE of the "creative tensions" of my parish ministry has been having the Hibernian FC football ground in my parish and my lifelong support of Dunfermline Athletic. My congregation never misses a chance to give me a serious ribbing when the Pars play badly and I often found ways of commenting theologically on Hibs's trials and tribulations.

As a Pars fan, it might appear to be little wonder I struggle with league tables. But with football we know what we are counting, even given the huge inequalities in the Scottish game. My problem with league tables is in an educational context. Not only do they not provide a true comparison between schools, they undermine the work we should be scrutinising in assessing the quality of the experience in our schools.

They introduce an element of competition between schools that is not helpful. I have no problem with competition on the sports field or anywhere else where the task is competitive, be that chess, maths, essay writing, debating, or whatever else you like. But the primary task of a school is to inspire and educate young people, not to compete with other schools.

League tables are not a comparison of the quality of a school but a collation of children's performances. Education must account for itself but each child's performance is unique in its circumstance and, as such, is an expression of the individual child's journey, not a counting block in the benchmarking of an institution's performance. League tables, either of exam results or of attainment targets, do not tell us what they claim to tell us, they merely express raw figures that are a collation of only one small part of the education experience.

That is not to say targets and goals are not useful tools. Children should be encouraged and challenged to achieve everything they can within the academic sphere to the highest possible standard, but to try to assess the quality of the effectiveness of the whole-school experience by counting exam passes is to misunderstand the whole nature of the education experience.

Instead we need a way of telling the whole story, a method that acknowledges and affirms the elements that make a good school and challenges those component parts that are weak. This needs to include things like ethos, school values, opportunities in sport and the arts, policies on behaviour, discipline, equalities, curriculum innovation, opportunities for children of varying abilities, guidance and pastoral care, citizenship, engagement with community, parents and business, opportunities for lifelong learning, international links, and so on.

It is a complex task to create a process to make this kind of assessment. The truth is it would be easier to stick to the more quantifiable results model. But the easy option isn't the best option and I want the best. In Edinburgh, we have begun to explore an alternative model I have called the Edinburgh Education Establishment Quality Seal. Using our present six-year cycle of internal reviews as a starting point and attempting not to add to teacher workloads, the seal would be achieved by a school in the same way that Charter Mark or Investors in People status is achieved.

A process is followed involving everyone who makes up the school community. It assesses, affirms and challenges using a variety of assessment models that cover as wide a range as possible. The academic record of the school will be vital, but achieving the seal will need much more than simply a good academic record. This is not a dumbing down, but a recognition of everything that goes towards the whole education experience.

Crucial in all of this is the process involved in designing the way in which the seal is assessed. Long before final details are announced, heads, teachers, parents and pupils along with officials will not simply be consulted but be involved in workshops, seminars and working groups in the design of the Quality Seal process.

Once a school achieves the seal, those standards need to be maintained or the status could be lost. But having it will mean that any parent can be assured of the quality and standard of the whole education experience their child will have in that school.

Eventually, I would want every school in the city to hold the seal, which will tell the true story of the quality and standard of the whole education experience.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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