Do school league-tables give a true assessment?

When Arsenal’s German star Mesut Ozil had found his feet in the struggles of Premier League football, he wrote that it was "the most difficult league in the world because it's so even. You can't really compare other leagues with the Premier League. In the Premier League, every team can beat every team, and in football, that's something where you can have surprises."

With the yearly publication of Post-Primary School League-Tables in the UK, the public get a view of which schools are ‘the best.’ But several critics are asking the questions: Can we really draw conclusions as to how good our schools actually are, solely from the number of A* to C grades achieved by students at GSCE or A’Level?

Can we really say the School League Table is ‘so even’ where ‘every team can beat every team’ or is it a case of ‘no surprises’ because deep down, we know the huge gaps between and limitations placed upon the teams (Schools) at play.   

Students entering secondary, grammar and comprehensive schools in Year 8 come from a wide variety of family, cultural, ability and socio-economic, backgrounds. Generally, children have attended different primary schools and come with their own experiences and level of physical, emotional intellectual and social development.

While some progressed having been taught by capable teachers and with first class resources, others have had learning experiences which were less effective. 

While some have had support from home and with that, the opportunity to develop, others have had to deal with domestic issues of varying degrees from coming to terms with illness, unemployment or personal loss. The human factors are always at work and should not be discounted because they cannot be measured.

Despite all this diversity as pupils begin their educational journey through secondary school, our education system measures the achievement of students using results from GCSE and A’Level examinations. The League Tables published each year base the ranking solely on the outcome of how students perform in these academic examinations.

Once results are set out in a League Tables according to criteria deemed comparable, then there are always going to be winners and losers. As with any table, couch the criteria for assessment a different way and there is a new positioning. In a football-world, the shape of the table would change if we only looked at points associated with ‘away matches,’ and allowed a different point-scaling for a draw or the numbers of yellow cards issued. In fact, the latter could even tell us something about the state of discipline in a football club who didn't operate a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality.

Measuring success depends a lot on one’s goals in relation to their ability. For some the 4A*/A aim is appropriate but for others, getting 2 grade C’s is a massive achievement. Students may have made lots of progress in their time at school despite achieving below average results but they may have progressed more since entering secondary school than the students with whom they are compared.

There is so much more to education than statistics totted up at the end of our school-going years. Equipping students for life in university, college or the workplace is crucial to the overall goal. 

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) report in 2017 on university ‘drop-outs’ showed an increase for the third year in a row. It indicated that students from low participation-neighborhoods are more likely to leave university after their first year than those from other areas. They are also most likely to leave higher education altogether.

Many students post school examinations tell of ‘cramming’ information for exam purposes, learning information and materials to be ‘rehashed’ for the occasion and then ‘forgotten about’ thereafter. Other aspects to our education are not easily measured such as social skills, ability to converse or debate on current affairs, musical or sporting abilities and listening skills. None of us would want these crucial elements to be ignored while we study towards ‘passing exams.’

Some other factors could be practical contributors to eschewing the Tables themselves. 

  • Schools all have different policies towards A’Levels. Some can discourage students from taking an extra A’Level or where a student has performed poorly in house-exams, advise against entering an A’Level examination. (Subsequently, its one less bad statistic!) 

  • At Sixth Form, it is possible to be biased with regards to intake in that high-performance GCSE results are needed in order to proceed with a course, meaning that less able students are not considered. 

  • Different values are attached by universities to actual subject results with some outside the mainstream considered easier than others. 

  • The special circumstances of individuals are also not reflected in simple League Tables, such as whether pupils only spoke English as a second language, or whether a teacher had fallen ill or even died! It is only when we in some sense understand the school that we can understand its statistics. 

Despite all of this, the published League Table has a huge psychological impact on parents and the wider public who frequently draw conclusions and make judgements about the effectiveness of a school, based on how it performed against others.

Although it does not seem fair that we are not comparing like with like and that the basis of our selection is narrow and driven by our perceptions, parents follow trends. In some cases, in the UK and in other countries where League Tables have been used, there has been an impact on property values with parents re-locating to reside in an area of their preferred school.

So before jumping to drastic measures and changing your house, ask the key question. Is a League Table listing all schools a fair way to compare them with each other.? Does it truly assess the overall effectiveness of a particular individual school?

If our conclusion here is that the League Table cannot factor in all the human elements that make up our educational journey through secondary school, is the judgement on the quality of the education within a school solely in terms of league tables invalid? And is it desirable at all for our education system to league position schools by relying on a spotlight statistic of A’Level or GSCE Examinations?

This debate may well be a place where as Ozil says “you can have surprises.”

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