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)