Beyond the nonsense of league tables

In his blog, 29/01/15, HMC member Andrew Fleck, Headmaster of Sedbergh School examines the usefulness of league tables and what data might give a better insight for parents.

The headline news that school leaders in the private and maintained sector have branded today’s school league tables as “Nonsense” highlights the growing gulf between those who work in education and Government. As teachers, we expect our work to be fairly judged and represented, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I am certainly not opposed to league tables and hold the PISA assessments in high regard as an objective measure of relative performance. We can all learn from the results. By contrast however, the Government uses league tables as a blunt tool to drive the implementation of new policy. I don’t think I have ever seen such a strong response to league table publication as this year.

Within one term of office this government has moved from promoting International GCSE exams for their academic rigour, to disregarding them because they lack academic rigour. This can only cause confusion and undermine the credibility of policymakers. The fact that teachers across every spectrum of British education are united in their condemnation of this year’s measures demonstrates a spectacular lack of confidence in Government analysis. But whilst schools and teachers may feel unfairly represented, the people who most misled are pupils and parents. If league tables are so flawed, what data might give a better insight into a school’s academic credentials? Here are some thoughts:

1. Which universities do pupils progress to and which courses? This measure reflects ambition, ability and results. Schools will usually publish this data.

2. What is happening to the school roll? It is highly unlikely that a poorly performing school will flourish.

3. What is the background of the teachers? Teachers with the strongest academic backgrounds are the most sought after and likely to gravitate towards strong schools. Look for teacher profiles or a list of qualifications.

4. Look at the curriculum. Academically rigorous schools will offer demanding subjects such as the sciences, Latin, Ancient Greek and modern languages and economics.

By all means compare the results which schools themselves publish. These have the benefit from being free from Government interference but there will still be inconsistencies.

And then there is the broader element of boarding education. Boarding schools embrace the fullest range of educational ambition so that pupils gain appreciation and skills in the arts, as performers or audience; they encounter a wide range of sports, important for future health and leisure time; spiritual and social development is nurtured. Boarding schools educate the whole person. (see my blog on Teamwork).

Increasingly, we see universities indicating that the highest level of academic achievement is not enough to secure an offer of a place. Admissions tutors recognise that applicants who are flourishing in the classroom and performing on the pitch, the stage, in community work and other spheres are better prepared for the demands of university and more likely to have the resilience to succeed in the long-term.

For clarity, Sedbergh prepares pupils for a range of examination courses which include both GCSE and International GCSE qualifications. We have never seen a pupil disadvantaged because of the syllabus they have studied. We will continue to select our courses for the quality of education they represent, the fairness of assessment they provide and their suitability to the talents of our pupils. I’m quite sure we are not alone.

And we were delighted with the achievements of our pupils in both GCSE and A level exams last year!

Follow Andrew's blog here.