The cult of the league table and schools that score zero

The Telegraph, 25.01.16, in recent league tables, Rugby School scored 0 per cent for GCSEs. So did Eton College. What does that say, asks HMC member Peter Green, head of leading independent Rugby School.

In performance tables issued last week by the Department for Education, Rugby School scored 0 per cent for GCSEs. So did Eton College.

What on earth would parents make of that?

The second verse of Eton’s famous boating song (after a lot of ‘We’ll row for ever’) suggests that ‘Rugby may be more clever …’

Well, we think we are, but the league tables would have us performing as badly as each other.

I am a league table sceptic. At best, league table ratings offer a snapshot of academic performance; at worst they mislead parents, especially as they do not report or represent the full range of exams that some schools offer. Nor, indeed, do they reflect the range of any school’s wider offering which the intelligent parent will wish to take into consideration.

I don’t suggest that parents are confused by league tables, but I do think that league tables send parents confusing messages. League tables are simply statistics. And we all know how many ways statistics can be presented and interpreted and, dare I say it, manipulated.

For example, A-levels and GCSEs continue to be subject to political tweaking and grade inflation. We know, too, that over the last couple of years, pupils – and schools - have suffered at the hands of hundreds of incompetent exam markers. The International Baccalaureate, globally recognised, is not at the mercy of UK government diktats. Isn’t there a world of difference between these two exams?

League tables fail to tell us which schools prevent their borderline students taking particular subjects in case their own performance is adversely affected. They do not tell us which schools include ‘easier’ subjects in the curriculum to boost their results. They don’t even acknowledge the size of the school (and this matters).

While league tables offer a snapshot of academic performance, they provide no indication of the standard of music, drama and sport or any of the activities that contribute to the development of the whole person. At Rugby School we regard that as the whole point of an all-round education.

I am not against an emphasis on demanding standards. What I’m against is the cult of the league table and those schools that see them as the apex of the pyramid of their educational philosophy (and marketing). They tell you nothing about the ethos of a school, its social mix, its location or place in the community, the commitment, generosity and aspirations of its staff, its range of co-curricular offerings.

I was, am, a parent. Choosing a school, however, is behind me, as my own children confront university and the world of work. But I remember the anguish involved in making the right choice of school for them. Parents look at the glossy brochures, they listen to their friends, they consult the good school guides. And, yes, they scan the league tables.

I expect the parents I meet to have asked themselves whether exam grades will be the major determinant in the future success of their children. And I’m pretty sure most of them say ‘no’. They know that choosing the right school is about more than that. Schools must surely be about the ‘more than that’.

I do believe in the rigour of exams. Mental responsiveness and intellectual agility are potent weapons that can be harnessed and refined at school. I also believe that the academic life must sit beside the artistic, spiritual and sporting life to encourage a child to try everything.

A school may not be in the top 10 of the league tables but it may have worked miracles by giving a child the confidence he or she needed to go out in the word and make a success of his or her life. For a school to suggest it is the best because it is high in the league is simply wrong.

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