Bristol Uni found abolition of league tables caused drop in school performance in Wales, says Telegraph. Really?

Janet Downs's picture
“…the decision [to abolish league tables] had a negative impact on Welsh schools relative to those in England.”

Daily Telegraph, 12 December 2013

The Telegraph was replying to Russell Hobby, National Association of Head Teachers, who’d said there was more to a school than its ranking.  Hobby’s comments, the Telegraph said, “came as research published by Bristol University suggested that league tables do improve performance in schools.”

Contrary to the impression given in the Telegraph, the research wasn’t hot off the press.  It was published in October 2010.

The report, the Telegraph said, “found rankings had a highly positive effect on schools – raising results relative to those nations that refuse to publish the data”.

The “nations” was actually one nation: Wales.

That said, the Bristol report is a formidable piece of analysis full of those eye-watering equations which only trained statisticians understand.  And what it found was a correlation between the abolition of league tables in Wales and a widening gap between GCSE performance of Welsh and English pupils.

But correlation isn't causation.  

Not everyone would agree with the Telegraph’s analysis.  In June 2011, the BBC* asked OECD’s Andreas Schleicher for his opinion about whether a fall in Wales’s performance in PISA 2009 was linked to abolition of league tables in the principality. Schleicher suggested England had veered too far towards high-stakes tests while Wales had veered too far in the other direction (see here for Schleicher’s full reply).  He stressed the importance of knowing how children were performing but did not imply league tables were essential data.  On the contrary, the OECD Economic Survey 2011* said there was already excessive emphasis on exam grades in England and this could have negative consequences.

It appears Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, hasn’t heeded this warning: he wants more testing in England.

Michael Gove also thought the fall in Welsh PISA results was due to the abolition of league tables, the Independent reported in June 2011.   FullFact** 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.”

But FullFact’s analysis and Andreas Schleicher’s opinion will count for nothing.  The Telegraph, Michael Gove and others will continue to say Wales’s low score in PISA is due to scrapping league tables and, therefore, league tables are a good thing.

But correlation isn’t causation.


*Testing Times Radio Wales 26/6/2011 repeated 4/9/2011

**Article no longer available on FullFact’s website.
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