League tables

Government league tables are out again – some schools will be celebrating their success, whilst others will be furiously figuring out what they can do to increase those all-important figures next year.

Of course, these aren’t the first league tables of the academic year – those arrived not long after GCSE and A-level results last summer, and appeared in the national press then. Needless to say, the two types don’t always say the same thing…

The DfE ones actually have a wealth of information. They include data on pupil data on entry to the school, the progress made by different categories of pupil, an overall “value added” figure, data comparing disadvantaged pupils to the rest, spend per pupil, average teacher salary, the Head’s nickname and the frequency of four-letter words in the kids’ language (OK, I made the last two up, but you get the picture).

But who reads all that, eh?  Well I do, but then I’m a data/stats nerd (and I have the “I Love Spreadsheets” mug to prove it). I doubt many people read much of it at all – they just look at one figure that gives a measure of “how good the exam results are”.

Do you know how that’s worked out, then? It’s an average points per pupil. That means, for each pupil, they add up the points for all the exams they’ve done; for GCSEs, it’s 58 for an A*, 52 for an A, 46 for a B and so on downwards. That makes 14 grade Ds worth more than 8 A* grades, and 12 C grades is better than 10 B grades. Does that sound right?

The other thing that goes into the total are points from graded music or drama exams. Now that sounds nice, doesn’t it,  rewarding other achievements as well? But – guess which schools will benefit the most – yup, you got it, ones with a very middle class intake.  And in many cases, you can’t even claim the school has really contributed to the child’s musical achievement!

I sound like I want to get rid of league tables, don’t I? They certainly are a very imperfect instrument (and that’s not sour grapes – the school I work at does pretty well in them) – the data’s not well understood, and they tend to encourage a focus on achievements that count in them, rather than valuable ones. And although there is info in there allowing for the intake profile – which is absolutely vital if they are to have any pretensions of being fair –  it’s rarely looked at and even more rarely understood.  But then I wouldn’t want schools who don’t do well by their pupils (and they do exist) to be unaccountable.

So what should we have instead? Any bright ideas anyone? (not you, Mr Gove – we’ve had enough of your brainwaves already)

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