Inaccurate reporting blames abolition of league tables for Wales' poor performance, but was that the whole truth? And are league tables essential to drive up standards?

Janet Downs's picture
The Daily Mail reported that the grades of Welsh children had dropped because league tables had been abolished. It quoted from a radio feature presented by John Humphrys which, according to the Mail, was a “shocking” programme revealing “a number of disturbing failings in Wales’s education system”.

The programme was not as damning as the Mail reported. The Mail concentrated only on negative opinion and ignored other evidence which supported the decision to get rid of SATs and league tables. The Mail highlighted the Principality’s poor showing in the 2009 PISA below the OECD average in reading and maths, but neither Humphrys nor the Mail reported that the performance of Welsh children in Science was around the OECD average. Wales’ weak performance has already been recognised and Leighton Andrews, the Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Assembly, requested an “evidence-based” review of Welsh education. However, he did not lay the blame on abolishing league tables which he described in the radio programme as being “too narrowly focussed”. He said, however, that he was in favour of “robust measurement” and was introducing tests in numeracy and literacy but these would not be used to rank schools. The Mail did not report this but concentrated on its hypothesis that the abolition of the league tables and SATs were the sole reasons for Welsh under-performance.

Humphrys had returned to his old Cardiff school and, according to the Mail, was “shocked by what he found”. Actually, he wasn’t. After touring the school, he concluded “this new [experiential] approach does seem to be working”. He said the Finns had been using the same system for years.

Humphrys also spoke to Andreas Schleicher, Head of Indicators and Analysis Division at the OECD, who was far more nuanced in his opinion about tests than was apparent from the Mail article which reported him as saying, “Whether abandoning those kinds of assessment was the right thing is up for debate.” This is what Mr Schleicher said in full:
“It’s a fine line, I mean, you could say maybe England has had in the past too much sort of high stakes testing, too little formative assessment, and in Wales it’s been perhaps the other way round but clearly you need some benchmark for success and whether abandoning those kinds of assessments altogether was the right thing, that’s really up for debate. At the end of the day, teachers, students and parents need to know how they are progressing. You’ll find very few education systems that do well without knowing how well the students have performed”.

Let’s be clear: Mr Schleicher said that perhaps in England there had been too much high stakes testing while Wales had perhaps erred too much in the other direction. This statement was absent from the Mail’s article. And although Mr Schleicher stressed the importance of knowing how children were performing, he did not imply that testing and league tables were the only way of doing it. On the contrary, the OECD Economic Survey 2011* voiced its concerns about the high emphasis on exam grades in England.

There are two issues here. First, biased reporting which highlights a particular point of view and ignores contradictory evidence. Second, whether league tables and an emphasis on grades are essential for raising standards.

Warwick Mansell , writing in the Times Educational Supplement, reported that many high-performing countries do not use league tables. The Central Council for Education in Japan, for example, said Japan should “avoid school ranking and unhealthy competition.” In Australia, there is a national testing system and the results are published, but the information contains contextual data to prevent schools being ranked. Mr Gove, as we know, has just abolished such contextual value-added data (CVA) in English league tables against the advice of the OECD who saw CVA as a step in the right direction.*

As is so often the case, Mr Gove, buoyed up by his own inflexible convictions and supported by inaccurate reporting from certain sections of the media, is moving in the opposite direction.

*OECD Economic Survey UK 2011 (not freely available on the internet but information on how to obtain a copy is available here)
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Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 22:15

And does John Humphrys use state education for his son?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 10:17

I've no idea whether Mr Humphrys uses state education or not. In any case, he wasn't doing a blanket criticism of state education in Wales as the Mail suggested. He did not criticise his old school, in fact he said, "There's no sitting in regimented rows with teacher at the front talking at you." The Mail used this quote but omitted the last three words so it appeared that Mr Humphrys was being critical ("shocked" was the Mail's description of Mr Humphrys' comment). He wasn't. As I say above, he said that the experiential approach did seem to be working, and they'd been using the same method in Finland, the top-performing European country in the 2009 PISA tables, for years.

Mr Humphrys did ask some hard questions about the poor showing of Wales in the 2009 PISA tables, as any commentator ought to. However, he did not come up with the simplistic answer that it was all down to the abolition of league tables, as did the Mail. His report gave both points of view. As Andreas Schleicher said, the question about abolishing SATs and whether it was right is "up for debate".

My purpose in starting the thread was to stimulate this debate while at the same time allowing people to comment on inaccurate reporting.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 11:29

Yes, he was misrepresented by the Mail.

I always find it a bit hollow when a reporter has to act as devil's advocate on matters ostensibly affecting state education because he sent his kids private (like Jon Snow, Jonathan and David Dimbleby) rather than being able to argue the case from a position "on the ground" so to speak.

That was the rationale behind the question.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 17:28

Talking to the Independent last week Mr Gove said the drop in Welsh PISA scores was due to the abolition of league tables and SATs. investigated and concluded:

“While Mr Gove is correct that Welsh PISA scores have 'deteriorated', whether they have done so at a slower or faster pace as a consequence of the decisions taken about testing and league tables is moot, as no benchmark exists to use as a point of comparison.”

Mr Gove, like the Mail, have decided that the fall in Welsh PISA scores was due to league tables and SATs being scrapped. Neither Mr Gove nor the Mail are interested in investigating any other possible cause. The reason for Welsh decline does indeed need investigating and the Minister in the Welsh Assembly who is responsible is doing just that. But all that counts for nothing - the simplistic answer offered by Mr Gove and the Mail is the only one they will consider.

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