‘Obsession with league tables breeding double standards,’ says new headmaster at Wellington College

The Telegraph, 25.08.15, an “obsession” with league tables is breeding double standards among schools, who argue against rankings but at the same time fiercely compete to come on top, the incoming Master at leading independent Wellington College, has said. HMC member Julian Thomas features.

Julian Thomas said a focus on top performance in rankings nurtures a style of teaching that’s more about encouraging students to learn facts and techniques to pass exams rather than long-term learning.

He also said league tables don’t paint a full picture of a school’s achievements and that it has become increasingly difficult to draw comparisons between institutions as a result of a flurry of new qualifications.

His dislike for league tables may be surprising to some because he is taking over a school that has attracted a great deal of attention in recent years because it jumped 193 places in league tables in six years under the leadership of Sir Anthony Seldon.

In his first interview ahead of taking over his post, Mr Thomas told the Daily Telegraph: “It’s important for our students to continue to get the very best they can achieve and that feeds into league table positions.

“If you start from that point of view, the league table position will take care of itself. What you must never, ever do is focus on league table positions and work backwards.”

But he said a constant focus on rankings is pushing schools towards double standards.

He said: “Sometimes you hear that there is a tension between schools arguing against league tables but at the same time being desperate to be high up in the rankings.

“I think in the independent sector you see it starting to break down: a number of schools are now pulling out of league tables.”

Sometimes you hear that there is a tension between schools arguing against league tables but at the same time being desperate to be high up in the rankings.

Mr Thomas also said schools should steer away from just focusing on league tables because they end up dictating the approach to teaching.

He said: “Where schools become too tied up in league table positions or percentages of A* to C (grades) they forget to teach in a way that’s inspirational, a way that makes you want to learn more afterwards, that is engaging, that gives a rounded view of every subject.

“The problem with league tables is that they don’t tell the whole story."

He added: “I don’t like league tables not because exam results are not important – they really are, they will be the currency that students use in a competitive market in a system that’s geared towards that – but what I don’t accept is that league tables tell you anything more than the absolute basics about that school.”

Separately, Mr Thomas, who is an avid explorer, said the rise in qualifications, like the International Baccalaureate and the pre-U, are making it harder for students to compare each other on their performance.

He said: “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to draw a direct comparison between qualifications and grading.

“You have to choose what’s right for the children but it does make league tables even less robust in terms of drawing conclusions about the work in the schools.”

Asked if his criticism of league tables was a departure from his predecessor, he said: “I don’t think so. Anthony’s view was always about the education of the child as a whole. I don’t think that’s a departure.”

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