Never mind the league tables

What about education?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Culture

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The publication of yet another set of school league tables in England is supposed to help parents make clearer, more balanced decisions about which primary schools they send their children to. But these complicated charts will likely only confuse people even more about what education is for.

The new tables relate to primary schools, and include a measure of ‘value added’. This, according to one news report, is ‘a measure intended to show how far teachers are helping children to improve’. (1) The idea behind these new measures are that existing league tables, which simply show how children have scored in national tests, are unfair because they do not take into account the relative advantages or disadvantages of children at particular schools, which will influence results.

Put bluntly, inner-city schools are likely to have more children designated with ‘special educational needs’ and generally lower scores than schools in middle-class areas – which poses problems for a government that stakes its reputation on levelling things out. When the league tables start reflecting what everybody already knows – that church schools in wealthier areas produce more high-achievers – the government has to look elsewhere for ways to measure its educational improvements.

Enter value-added. By indicating not just how well children have done, but how far they have progressed from previous years, it is hoped that these ‘value added’ league tables will give a clearer and fairer sense of teaching quality, and help low-achieving-but-steadily-progressing schools feel better about themselves.

Of course, these new tables won’t do anything of the sort. The teaching unions have slammed them for being, amongst other things, incomprehensible – a fact borne out by the BBC’s analysis of the results. ‘The compiling of the value added measure takes several pages of explanation in the official notes accompanying the tables,’ it says. ‘But put simply, it involves working out how well each child did this year compared to the middle performance of all the others nationally who had a similar level of achievement four years ago.’ (2) If that’s the simple explanation, no wonder everybody’s a bit confused.

Schools that have found themselves at the bottom of the value added tables have complained that the results have been distorted, while those at the top do not seem particularly excited. ‘I don’t think there’s a great deal of benefit in league tables,’ said Margaret Libreri, headteacher of this year’s ‘most improved’ school – Wellington Primary in Bow, east London. ‘Wellington has been at the bottom of the tables so it’s quite nice to be at the top for a change.’ (3)

And it is hard to see how parents will feel better, knowing that their children’s school gets worse results than other schools but is doing a bit better compared to its own results the previous years. After all, it’s not like children at these value-added inner-city schools have much of an option to go elsewhere.

But there is more to the value-added measure than a gimmick gone wrong. It is a statement about how the government views the role of education, from primary schooling upwards to the university. What matters is not what pupils achieve academically, reaching upwards to the high standards that society sets. Rather, what matters is that pupils gradually boost their good behaviour and self-esteem, by achieving that little bit more each year. It’s attitude and participation, more than intelligence and achievement, that counts.

This ethos has informed British education for a while now, and is what lay beneath the creation of primary-school league tables even before the addition of the value-added measure. The league tables, based as they are on pupils’ scores in national tests in English, Maths and Science, on the surface look like a clear measure of academic attainment, and therefore a useful guide to aspirational parents wanting to send their child to a high-achieving school.

But as teachers complain, with some justification, these tests are less a reliable measure of pupils’ academic development than a bureaucratic measure of teachers’ ability to push the maximum number of students through some pretty basic tests. In the obsession with measuring output levels, less formal but crucial aspects of primary education are sacrificed.

By emphasising the need for one national, standard measure of basic skills and targets, the ability and autonomy of teachers and schools to assess the children in their care is undermined. ‘I think personally that I could do without [the tests],’ said Sandra Jones, headteacher of Werrington Primary in Cambridgeshire, which topped this year’s league tables overall. ‘Teacher assessment is pretty spot-on now and I think it is more realistic than tests done on one day.’ (4)

The value-added measure reinforces the view that education is about schooling children in the right attitude to jump through easily-reachable hoops – but it contains an extra ‘plodding’ dimension. Children’s attainment is measured partly according to national test scores, itself a rather banal external standard of what their generation of pupils should achieve, and partly according to an internal measure of what they, or children like them, achieved before.

With this combination of criteria, it is perfectly possible to win both ways. But whilst this might satisfy the government’s bureaucratic urges, what does any of it mean for children’s education? What matters, surely, is that young children learn something about the world, themselves and each other. Their ability to negotiate the twists and turns of national tests and targets is immaterial – even if the whole primary education system has become reorganised around this principle.

In our imperfect education system, of course children at different schools will be affected by different advantages and disadvantages. Of course it matters, not just what they achieve, but how far they have progressed. Of course they should not be made to feel like failures for life because their school came under average in some poxy national tests, and so on and so on.

But the spirit of these new measures seems to be that it doesn’t matter if they don’t make it to the heights – so long as they have progressed a little way out of the sink estate. These pupils can be praised and patronised in all their ignorance, provided they show greater compliance with the assessment procedure than did previous generations of pupils at their school.

Of course there are problems with league tables. But the solution is to get rid of league tables, and this assessment-heavy, education-lite approach to primary education. It is not to develop a whole new incomprehensible set of league tables that promote confusion and low expectations, and add nothing of any ‘value’ to anything.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) New tables reveal school ‘value’, BBC News, 4 December 2003

(2) Analysis of the results, 4 December 2003

(3) New tables reveal school ‘value’, BBC News, 4 December 2003

(4) New tables reveal school ‘value’, BBC News, 4 December 2003

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Topics Culture


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