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A closer look at league tables

Sarah Kingsley Sarah Kingsley | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

I have mixed feelings about school performance league tables. I’m not one for trawling through pages of statistics and tend to glaze over when presented with too many comparison charts. Fortunately, when choosing a secondary school for my son, I discovered the BBC education site which explains primary school league tables and secondary school league tables in a clear, straightforward way.

However, just when I thought I was getting to grips with it all, additional information has been included in this year’s secondary school league tables. Previously the benchmark was five GCSEs including Maths and English, but now the tables measure schools' performance by the proportion of children who obtain the new English Baccalaureate. The ‘E-Bac’ will be awarded to those children who achieve GCSEs in English, Maths, a Science, a foreign language and a Humanities subject such as History or Geography, with the objective of encouraging schools to offer a broader academic curriculum.

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That’s not all. Parents can now use the Department for Education’s website to create their own performance tables that rank local schools or compare them with others. Also for the first time, the government has published data on how much each school in England spent in 2009-10, including spend per pupil. 

I’m all for transparency, but do parents really need to get bogged down by so many facts and figures? And what about children who attend schools which aren’t performing well in the tables? A recent report reveals that half of secondary school pupils in England and Wales are being let down by a system that focuses on brighter children and fails to prepare others for the world of work. If this is the case, many parents may be less interested in league table results and more interested in how a school will prepare their child for getting a job. On the other hand, evidence shows that the abolition of league tables in Wales has resulted in a drop in standards, which suggests that an element of competition and accountability is important. 

Whichever way you look at it, it’s worth remembering that league tables don’t always tell the full story. For example, they don’t show the pupils’ IQs, backgrounds, support at home, and the breadth of education available at each school. In addition, you need to look at how a school performs over several years to get a consistent picture. 

If a child isn’t academic, then league tables aren’t necessarily going to help find the best school for that child. To judge a school purely on its position in the league tables is over-simplistic, particularly now that the CVA (contextual value added) measure, which compares pupils’ progress against that of other children from similar backgrounds, is being phased out.   

League tables have their place as one of the tools parents can use when choosing a school. But figures can be misinterpreted – some schools are partially selective for example, or there may be a large percentage of children receiving private tuition. There are other things to consider too when choosing a school: the enthusiasm of the head and the teachers, the breadth of subjects available, the facilities, discipline, the involvement of parents and even the distance from your home. Above all, is it a school best suited to your child?

Children should certainly be encouraged to fulfil their potential, and perhaps a few schools were guilty of putting pupils forward for less challenging GCSEs in order to boost their figures in the tables. However, not all children are suited to a purely academic education. Although league tables can be useful and Ofsted reports can give a more detailed picture, nothing beats a visit to a school, a chat with the head, teachers, parents and students. It might not be very scientific, but sometimes a gut feeling is as important as facts and figures.

Sarah Kingsley is a freelance writer and a member of the BBC Parent Panel.



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