The League Table Lottery and ‘Trip Advisor’ for schools

Last week the Department of Education released league tables of ‘school performance’ and this week it is re-writing the criteria for them by removing thousands of vocational qualifications.  Welcome to the chaotic and confused world of educational league tables.

In 2011, The Perse which regularly finishes in the top 25 schools nationally as measured by The Times and The Daily Telegraph was placed last in Cambridgeshire by Her Majesty’s government.  The international GCSEs sat by many of our pupils and highly valued by universities and employers were not recognised by the Department of Education.  We thus scored zero in many subject areas and achieved the rare feat of negative learning; our pupils apparently knew less at the end of Year 11 than they did on entry to Year 7.  In 2012, some but not all of our international GCSEs have been recognised by civil servants and as a consequence we have shot up the league table and entered positive learning territory.

There must be a better way of measuring genuine school performance than these erratic swings caused by bureaucratic reclassification.

The present league table arrangements incentivise schools to find the easiest routes to maximise qualification scores with limited regard for the quality of the resulting educational journey.  Students can be dragooned in to sitting AS and A2 General Studies to raise the average point score per student, even though these qualifications are not valued by many selecting universities.  Meanwhile Heads despair that the whole process is driven not by what pupils, parents or teachers value but by what civil servants consider important.  Thus in the newly created English Baccalaureate, Geography, History and Ancient History are deemed acceptable by the state whilst Religious Studies, Music and Classical Civilisation are not.  Knowing ministerial whim, it could have been different if Religious Studies had been rebranded as Theology.

I am not anti league tables.  Good league tables aid transparency, encourage healthy competition, and drive up educational standards.  For schools preparing pupils for university entrance, then a league table of university admissions is a good yardstick.  In awarding places, universities draw on a range of data including public exam results, relevant work experience, extra-curricular interests, interpersonal and communication skills, and for some institutions performance in interviews and additional tests.  University admission is thus a composite measure of student and school performance, with the added benefit that judgements are made by independent universities.

Alongside quantitative league tables there is a place for qualitative comments.  Trip Advisor performs a useful albeit not perfect function for the leisure market, and a similar product would bring another dimension to school evaluation.  Yes ‘customer’ comments can always be distorted by individuals with axes to grind, but average ratings from large numbers of parents over long periods of time are useful measures.  This is exactly why good schools, like The Perse, carry out parental and pupil surveys to evaluate performance.  Promoting a Trip Advisor for schools will not win me many friends in education, but it would almost certainly be a more accurate measure of school performance than the snakes and ladders league tables produced by the ministry.  Ofsted are clearly thinking along similar lines and have just launched ‘Parent View.

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