School league tables: ‘smoke and mirrors that skew the headline figures’

Most would agree that, yes, performance tables tell us something about a school, however identifying what exactly that is, isn’t straightforward.

Performance tables focus on outcomes, so they can tell us, for example, how successful a school may be at recruiting and retaining staff in some shortage subject areas. However, they tell us little about a school’s story.

Parents want an informed way to compare schools, and performance tables may appear to provide the simple figures that allow them to do just that.

What many parents won’t know, however, is that these figures don’t provide a full picture of a school. They may not know, for example, that the Ebacc and Progress 8 will have a different influence and give certain subjects a lower status than others and, because of this, some students will be strongly advised to take some subjects at the expense of others.

Earlier this month we were told that the reformed iGCSEs will not count in the school performance tables from 2018, but many schools had adopted this strategy as a way to show success.

The rules keep changing and this is putting even more pressure on teachers as they are unable to plan ahead and prepare for exams. It’s also causing confusion and stress for students and parents.

Removing the iGCSEs also raises some ethical questions: should they have been allowed to be introduced in the first place if they are considered easier than the standard GCSEs?

Performance tables often mean that students are taught to pass exams but not always to understand or enjoy the subject involved, which again raises ethical questions.

All Saints is located in an area of social deprivation; in such areas student mobility has an ever increasing influence on results, and consequently on their performance tables. We get a lot of midyear admissions of children who are at a different academic level to others in their year groups, such as students for whom English is an additional language, but performance tables don’t take these factors into account.

Students “disappear” out of mainstream education but stay on our role so we are accredited with their outcomes. They may be following courses in-house or elsewhere that are appropriate to their needs but, if it is not GCSE, then they have a negative effect on the overall outcome for the school.

The use of data relating to Post 16 attainment is even more complex than GCSE as it can be presented in a variety of formats, some of which are superficially very impressive.

The publication of grades, UCAS points and vocational qualifications can all be done in such a way that parents may gain a false impression on outcomes.

This may not be done for any other purpose other than to present the school in the best light, a natural strategy to adopt, but it can be very difficult to unravel what the real meaning of the data, and subsequent tables, represent.

My advice to parents researching potential schools for their children, rather than relying solely on performance tables, is to visit the school and talk to staff and other parents.

Consider the leadership of the school, the teachers’ specialisms and the extra-curricular activities on offer. These are the things that will give you a well-informed picture of the school as a whole, not the performance tables.

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