What do school league tables really tell us about school standards?
School league tables are now as old as the pupils whose GCSE results the latest figures report. They date back to 1992 and John Major’s Conservative government. Originally, they formed part of the ‘Citizen’s Charter’.
In true Tory fashion, they were originally introduced to create a ‘free market’ of school choice for parents. Essentially, they turned parents into consumers. The tables were intended to be a ‘go-to guide’ to make it easy for parents to see key snapshots of data that would inform choice about which schools to send their child to.
If that was the aim, most people would probably agree – in theory – that the principle of school league tables made sense. However, what happens in practice and reality is often very different from the original intentions.
Furthermore, since 1992, successive governments have been quick to find other uses for the tables. They have (at best) become a method through which governments can leverage the direction the school system goes in. At worst, they have become nothing more than another big stick by which schools can be beaten with.
Governments persist in moving the league table goalposts
Most (if not all) schools would agree that league tables only tell part of the story of a school. The sense of community, the level of support given, and the way pupils are nurtured are all key factors that parents are likely to consider when it comes to deciding which school is best suited to their child’s needs.
But, the problem with these attributes is that they aren’t tangible. They cannot be measured in percentages or decimal points; they cannot be reported on in league table data.
Another problem is that the measurements used in league tables have been changed all too frequently by successive governments. 5 A*-C at GCSE used to be the key measure. However, because the tables had become so important to schools, some started to ‘play the system’ somewhat. Although the vocational route was a suitable one for many students, the 4 equivalent GCSE passes that BTEC and GNVQ courses offered provided a better chance for many to reach the coveted 5 A*-C benchmark.
The government responded by changing the measure to 5 A*-C including English and Maths. ‘Value-added’ became a way to guard against ‘coasting schools’.
Now, we move into the era of the EBacc, Attainment 8 and Progress 8. At first glance the league tables look very ‘user-friendly’.
Progress 8 measurements (in decimals) might be as clear as mud to most parents, but are helpfully colour-coded (green/amber/red) to indicate whether a school is well-above average, average, or well-below average.
The DfE press release of 25 January predictably boasted that ‘education standards continue to rise.’ However, it might be pertinent to remember that the DfE has been taken to task on several occasions for its misleading use of data.
How can we best interpret the data the league tables provide?
‘With a pinch of salt’ is probably the best way for parents to take school league table data. Nothing is particularly clear with the tables.
For example, this year has seen a disturbing rise in the number of schools that have slipped below the government’s ‘floor standard.’
However, the DfE itself has explained that this increase is predominantly due to the way that Attainment 8 and Progress 8 data is calculated, rather than a real drop in standards in schools.
Another key headline of this year’s tables – the fall in achievement in EBacc subjects – is difficult to interpret. A pitiful 5.9% of low attaining pupils managed to achieve the EBacc measure; but this says as much about the lack of wisdom in forcing students down such a narrow, academic examination route as it does about a drop in school standards.
The number of EBacc entries is down nationally, which could suggest that schools are gradually turning their backs on it. Achievement in EBacc subjects is down too (by 3.9%). Time will tell whether the EBacc will remain a key measure of school performance tables a few years down the line.
School league tables are certainly not completely useless, but they are a long way from being as useful as they are intended to be.