Don’t be fooled by the ‘evidence’ of league tables

19 January 2017
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Telegraph, 19.01.17, parents are right to explore thoroughly the schools they are considering for their child’s education, but being armed with league table data is not the most informative measure of a school’s effectiveness and success; indeed league tables can be downright misleading on this score writes HMC's Lucy Pearson, Head of Cheadle Hulme School.

Yes, amongst the several changes I want to see to the educational landscape, removing the prevalence of school league tables is certainly right in the mix. As Dr Bernard Trafford, retiring Headmaster of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle wrote, “All schools should publish their exam results to parents, but as soon as the figures are out in the open they’re turned into league tables. Attempts to make the data sensitive to context are doomed to fail”.

To measure any school solely on data that lacks such context is to miss out on the bigger picture of what it is achieving for and by its students.

When parents are considering Cheadle Hulme School for their son or daughter, I ask what it is that they really seek for their child. The answer most often is ‘I want them to be happy.’ For many of us, happiness is synonymous with ‘success’; in education ‘success’ is measured in too many league tables simply by academic outcomes and more particularly the number of ‘top’ grades a school’s cohort achieve in a given year (A*/A).

But tables that simply list grades achieved don’t paint the true picture as they offer no context to the information they provide: students are reduced to statistics, and a judgement is made of that number (the child) with no other information about them. There is no sense of their working habits (‘lower’ grades are seen to be indicative of ‘lower’ ability or poor work ethic), no sense of whether these results are above, in line with or below expectation for that individual, no sense of the values which a child has developed as they have grown into a young adult, no sense of their broader achievements; no sense of whether that child was happy at school.

As parents seek happiness for their sons and daughters, it’s important that they are honest about what this happiness really looks like. Every child should be stretched and challenged in their academic work, enabling them to achieve their best; every child should feel cared for and supported in their learning and in themselves, and every child should be encouraged to discover their interests and talents in a range of activities and pastimes.

Rather than accepting a table whose criteria is hazy and conclusion(s) often misleading, I would encourage parents to write their own criteria for their own league table: judge each school against what you want for your child, not an arbitrary benchmark or generic statistical analysis. To really discover which school is the right one for your child, you need to visit the schools you are considering, meet the students, observe the lessons, talk to staff and learn about each school’s ethos and values; ask to speak to current parents too.

There is no measure for such success that would ever satisfy a Government league table. Choosing the right school is as much about instinct as it is anything else and yet, too often we allow a set of statistics to exert the greatest influence. Whilst the Department for Education league tables out today are starting to make attempts to move towards measuring progress across a range of factors rather than simply grades achieved, this is still far from what I am proposing.

Schools themselves, of course, do not help the situation; many place great importance on their ranking within the league tables and trumpet their placing each year, whilst those who are not in the topmost echelons remain quiet as if they have something to hide.

Happiness matters. And I believe that feeling ‘successful’ contributes significantly to being happy. The problem is that when success is reduced down to a very narrow set of criteria and lacks context, many young people can be made to feel, and be perceived to be, comparatively unsuccessful, when this is far from the truth.

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