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School league tables data

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 16:10 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The secondary school league tables for England are published at 0930 GMT this Thursday, and this website will, as usual, be making them available to you, in detail, as soon as possible thereafter.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteBut not in as much detail as usual, or as we'd have liked, at least to begin with.

This is because the government has tightened up on the media's pre-release access to official statistics.

Legislation now limits the access that anyone not directly involved in compiling statistics should have before they are published and available to all. The aim is to avoid any undermining of public trust by ensuring that data of this sort is collected, stored and prepared for publication with due care, and that the process is not vulnerable to political or any other interference.

So this week we'll aim to publish tables for each of England's 150 local authorities, ranking schools on their Level 2 (including GCSE) and CVA (associated Contextual Value Added) results, and on their Level 3 (including A-level) results and - new this year - Level 3 CVA.

School league tables screenshotWe'll also aim to provide a 'top/bottom 200' tables nationally on the various measures - including schools that fall into the controversial National Challenge category of less than 30% good GCSEs with English and Maths, or equivalents.

But we will not, initially, be able to do the usual page-for-every-school service or the same comprehensive overview and analysis we usually provide. We reported on this here.

In the past, we have generally got the official results a week in advance, under embargo, to compile and check tables. This time, we will have had sight of the data for just 24 hours.

But the school results that are supplied to the news media are not in a readily accessible form.

In the case of the secondary schools, there are two large spreadsheets, each with a number of pages, covering GCSE and A-level and equivalent results and associated local and national averages and other information.

Each sheet has dozens of columns, and a row for each school and college.

Formatting the essential benchmarks from all this for publication, using computer scripts to interrogate the data, compiling and then proofreading them, takes hours of work.

A statement published on the DCSF website says: "The Pre-release Access to Official Statistics Order 2008 that came into force on 1 December 2008 and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics published on 6 January 2009 means the Department must change the arrangements for the release of the two sets of achievement and attainment tables from previous years."

We could, perhaps, simply wait until the statistics were published officially and then commence work.

But that would mean rather meaningless news stories saying "the league tables have been published - but we cannot bring you them yet".

It would risk turning the process into a rush to publish the data, with little room for checking or analysis.

To keep this in perspective, we are not talking about market sensitive financial information, but simply the practicalities of handling and commenting on exam results which the schools themselves have had since the late summer and often have published themselves anyway.

And it's not about the rights and wrongs of having the school league tables (about which there is considerable debate), it is about how they can best be presented to the public and in particular to parents.

The impact of the new legislation on the school league tables does not seem to have been foreseen within the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

It was, according to the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, an "unintended consequence" - and he is minded to legislate to correct it for next year.

For now, senior editorial figures at the BBC have, with national newspapers and the Press Association, signed a joint letter of complaint to DCSF chief statistician Malcolm Britton.

It says, in part: "With less than 24 hours' preparation time, it will be much more difficult to produce any meaningful analysis of the information and to ensure there are no errors.

"The result is that the main aim of the government and of our organisations - to provide an essential service to parents choosing a secondary school for their sons and daughters - will be thwarted. This is a service which we believe your office also values."

Providing you with the source data that underlies the news stories we cover is an increasingly important aspect of what we do, especially on the website.

There are new ways being developed of presenting and visualising data on the web, and we see that as a growing part of our journalism, an opportunity to interpret information and present it to you in new ways.

But in order to do that, we rely on being able to get access to the source data in time to properly order and make sense of it.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.


    Will the BBC...Due to the embargo rules on the league tables, will the media be offering a link to the website to get access of the information.....

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 7.

    The idea of league tables in life has been discredited many, many times. It isn't just the folly of trying to condense infinite variables into meaningful statistics, it is the whole notion that something that "works on paper" also "works in practice".

    One wonders about a Government so full of its self importance that it protects PUBLIC information like it is the result of some massive media award ceremony. One wonders about a Corporation that panders to this arrogant collection of misplaced parasites, unless, of course, each recognises the game the other is playing.

    The test of any school is in the individual who started with an expectation of being "brought out" and finished with what? Nothing else matters to that individual. His or her school were top of the league because their only failure was him or her?

    If only there were a simple list for each and every parent advising how to get the very best for their little Janet or John even if you do not have very much money.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well OK, all very well, but why restrict people from printing off the valuable tables that you *have* compiled?

    Printable versions are omitting the tables altogether, and attempts to cut and paste lose all formatting. Surely this was not the Beeb's intention?

  • Comment number 10.

    You would have thought a pre-defined XML layout would be easier for all involved!

  • Comment number 11.

    Why not just take a week to do the analysis and publish it next week? What's the big deal? No one will die because you didn't get the analysis out this week.

    This is a non-story and a non-issue made into obfuscation by a media intent on getting one-up on their competitors.

    What the media are concerned about is that the other paper or news org will get their analysis out first.

  • Comment number 12.

    I don’t think that news organisations should have this information before anybody else. I know that the government is sensitive to complaints by the media, especially from the powerful BBC. Let’s hope that our elected government does not yield to this pressure. I suspect they will though.

  • Comment number 13.

    At least you have information to do sensible analysis on - I would much rather be in the situation where we may have to wait a week longer for objective analysis than the one we're currently facing with the South Africa education system.

    Here, media is fed post-'normalisation' state matriculant pass rate statistics and analysis without the raw data to work with. Statistics are released by the SA department of education with literally tens of thousands of results unaccounted for. Since the DoE is measured on these same statistics they publish, most of the thinking public take them with a pinch of salt when they're released.

  • Comment number 14.

    Am I alone in despairing of the league tables and the hype they generate, shouldn't the discussion be centred more around the ability of our teenagers to be able to read, write and to do arithmetic to something approaching an acceptable standard on leaving the education system carry a little more weight than the pass rates on a series of increasingly (seemingly) dumbed down exams?


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