Q&A: School league tables

children in playground The tables are published yearly and are used by many parents to choose schools for their children

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The BBC News website answers key questions about the school league tables in England.

What are league tables?

School league tables are created from data published by the government on the attainment of pupils in England. Primarily the tables are based on the raw results of certain key tests and exams taken by children as they progress on their educational journey through schools. For the primary tables they are the national curriculum tests known as Sats taken at age 11. For secondary tables they are GCSEs, A-levels and equivalent exams. In the past, only media organisations used the data to produce rankings but now the Department for Education has a facility on its website which allows users to rank schools by different measures.

What are the arguments for league tables?

League tables are used widely by parents to judge how well schools in their area perform. Proponents argue that the tables help drive up standards by increasing the accountability of schools and providing valuable information for parents. Research published last 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 quality, achievements and character. They argue that the tables often say more about the intake of a school than the teaching and learning that goes on there. It is claimed they 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. There are also suggestions that children are pushed into subjects and choices which make the school look good, rather than broadening their education.

What is considered to be acceptable performance in the tables?

Primary schools are considered to be "underperforming" if fewer than 60% of pupils get a Level 4 in both maths and English. Secondary schools are considered to be "underperforming" if fewer than 40% of their pupils get five C grades or better at GCSE, including English and maths, and if fewer students are making two levels of progress between the ages of 11 and 16 (Key Stages 3 and 4) than the national average.

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. Wales has now published tables which place schools in one of five performance bands.

Should I choose a school for my child based on these tables?

The tables show how well a particular year group of pupils at a given school has performed in tests or exams. Most of the pupils will have started school a few years before taking the tests or exams and there may have been changes of staff or policy at the school in the interim. The tables do not include information about the more holistic elements of a school such as extra-curricular activities on offer - for example, sport and drama - or details about a school's pastoral care. Some of these details may feature in the school's Ofsted report.

The best way to decide whether a school is right for your child is to visit it and talk to the head teacher. Most schools run open days and/or evenings for prospective pupils and parents. It can also help to talk to parents with children at the schools you are looking at.

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