Q&A: School league tables

Pencils The league tables show both attainment and pupils' progress

Key questions answered as the government publishes its annual secondary school performance tables, a month after the data for primary schools was released..

What are league tables?

Every year the government publishes data on the attainment of pupils in schools in England, in what it describes as "achievement and attainment tables". In recent years, the government has not ranked schools by their performance - media organisations have used the data to produce rankings. But from January 12, the Department for Education is introducing a facility enabling members of the public to rank schools by different measures on its website.

What information do they include?

The tables include attainment data, such as the results of Sats (national curriculum tests taken at age 10 or 11), GCSE and A-level qualifications and their equivalents.

They also contain measures intended to show how well pupils are progressing. These aim particularly to help reflect the achievements of schools which raise the attainment of pupils starting from low levels.

One such measure is "contextual value added" (CVA). It compares pupils' progress against that of other children who come from similar backgrounds in terms of factors outside the school's control, such as deprivation, gender and ethnic identity. But there is debate over how statistically valid the CVA measure is, and the coalition government is phasing it out.

Also used is the "progress measure", the proportion of pupils making the expected amount of progress for their age, as defined in the national curriculum.

See our guides to the primary and secondary tables for more detail on measures

England league tables

Compare schools in your area

England league tables

Compare schools in your area

How are the tables different this year?

At primary level, this was the first year the government dropped Sats tests in science.

The percentage of children attaining Level 4 - the expected level for their age - in maths and English remains a government benchmark. But previously, an "aggregate" score, out of 300, was calculated for schools' results across maths, English and science - this is no longer used.

At secondary level, the government is also including two new measures. One is the proportion of pupils gaining the equivalent of the new English baccalaureate - a qualification which will be given to any pupil gaining an A*-C pass in maths, English, a science, a modern or ancient language, and history or geography. The other is a "basics" measure - the proportion of students gaining A*-C passes in maths and English. The benchmark measure has previously been the number of pupils gaining five A*-C passes, including maths and English, at GCSE or GCSE equivalent.

Some International GCSE qualifications will also be included, although not all. Many independent schools use these qualifications, which they consider to be more challenging, and its exclusion from the tables in the past has meant lower scores for highly academic schools in the tables.

Alongside the secondary tables, the government is also publishing income and spending data at school level for the first time.

What are the arguments for league tables?

League tables are used widely by parents to compare the attainment of schools in their own areas. Proponents argue that the tables help drive up standards by increasing the accountability of schools and provide valuable information for parents as they choose schools for their children. Research published this year by Bristol University claimed that the abolition of league tables in Wales had led to a drop in standards in the lowest 75% of schools.

What are the arguments against?

Opponents say league tables are too crude a measure of a school's character, quality and achievements and often end up saying more about the intake of a school than the teaching and learning that goes on there. They say the tables encourage competition rather than collaboration between schools in local areas and can lead to middle-class parents pushing to get their children into top schools, further driving down standards at less popular schools.

How are league tables changing?

As well as this year's changes, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has announced plans for future reforms. Ministers want to phase out CVA completely, arguing that it is difficult to understand and that it is "wrong in principle" to, in effect, expect different levels of progress depending on pupils' backgrounds.

The government has asked a review of vocational education to make recommendations on how best to recognise vocational qualifications - some of which are currently considered equivalent to several GCSEs - in the performance tables. Critics say some vocational qualifications are of questionable value but schools still encourage pupils to do them in order to boost league table rankings.

The government says it wants to avoid "perverse incentives" for schools to offer what it describes as "lower quality" vocational qualifications, while recognising "good quality" ones.

The government also plans to publish information on spending per pupil at each school, a performance measure for pupils on free school meals and to put more emphasis on the existing progress measure.

Didn't some schools boycott Sats?

Yes. This year, about a quarter of primary schools boycotted Sats tests. This was because they were opposed to the way the data is used in league tables to rank schools and because some teachers believe the emphasis on Sats leads them to "teach to the test" at the expense of a broad and interesting curriculum.

What does the boycott mean for the primary tables?

Schools that boycotted the tests have no data in the columns for their Sats results. Most of these schools will still have carried out "teacher assessments", and this year, for the first year, this data is being published alongside the official Sats results. It is not included in the BBC tables, but can be seen on the government's page for each school.

Government statisticians say there are, however, enough test results to give a representative picture of achievement across England. But they say caution will be needed this year when interpreting differences of less than 1% from previous years and between groups of schools.

However, in 20 local authorities so many schools took part in the boycott that there are not enough results to produce a reliable figure for attainment in the authority.

What about failing schools?

Education Secretary Michael Gove says he prefers the term "underperforming" to failing but he has nevertheless raised the "floor target" below which schools are considered to be underperforming.

Under Labour, primary schools were expected to have at least 55% of their pupils attaining Level 4 in both maths and English. Now schools in which less than 60% of pupils reach the benchmark will be considered underperforming, if they also fall below the national average for progress in both maths and English.

For secondary schools, 35%, rather than 30%, of pupils must gain five A*-C GCSE passes, with similar progress targets.

What about the rest of the UK?

Wales and Northern Ireland abolished league tables in 2001, followed by Scotland in 2003. Scottish exam data is still published online. It is not in a format where schools can be easily compared, although some media organisations still compile tables.

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