If the league tables went missing for a year of two, would it be the end of the world?

Fiona Millar's picture
What would happen if we had a few years without the league tables? I have been pondering this idea since reading the letter Ofqual sent to schools in late June. In it the chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, warns of even more “variability” in this summer’s exam results than we have experienced in recent years

Actually that is probably a polite interpretation of what she was was saying. Having read the letter several times it is clear that no one really knows what is going to happen this summer, other than that ALL schools will be probably be affected and the overall results are unlikely, according to the regulator, to provide a valid comparison with previous years.

So much change is being forced through the system at the same time, in a rush and without proper piloting or modelling, that the impact is almost impossible to predict. Gove’s legacy if you like, from beyond the political grave.


We know the reasons why we ended up here, anxiously anticipating a set of results that may be meaningless in terms of reflecting real improvement. For too long heads and teachers have been given hoops to jump through and, however honourably, they have duly found every which way to maximise their own schools’ performance.

This is what they have been encouraged to do by successive government and we can’t blame them for following the incentives put before them. Unfortunately sometimes this has been at the expense of individual pupils’ needs and has even at times verged on the dishonest and fraudulent. See here for my piece in the Guardian on cheating.

The result is a belief in government that qualifications have become degraded and that too many schools are “gaming the system”  by manipulating the curriculum, using “easier" GCSE equivalent qualifications which may not all provide suitable pathways to further or higher education, by over generously marking coursework and even by moving children off their rolls in advance of the GCSE years.

All these point to a deeper malaise in the accountability system, now over-reliant on broken statistical measures which paint a very limited picture of how “well educated” our children are in the widest sense. Even the headteacher of Eton is now speaking out about this.


The switch from modular to linear exams, the demise of controlled assessments, the end of English speaking and listening tests being counted as part of the overall GCSE English grade, a dramatic drop in the number of early entries following the government's abrupt ruling that only the first exam entry will count in school league tables, not to mention the elimination of some vocational qualifications from the approved list; these factors are all converging on this August’s results day. Henry Stewart has already posted here on the impact this latter change to approved qualifications would have had on last year’s results, according to the DFE’s own figures.

Exam entries in some qualifications (notably IGCSE English) have risen this year, in others they have dropped (see here for the figures). No one knows what the net effect of this will be other than that the cohort of applicants this year is very different to last year’s.

Negotiations between Ofqual and exam boards are almost certainly underway already about this year’s grade boundaries. Who can forget what happened in 2012, when GCSE English grade boundaries were subtly shifted because the results didn’t tally with the predictions for that year’s cohort, based on their KS2 SATS results.

I wrote about that here, pointing out that if the results are already “written” in this way it is hard to see how schools can demonstrate exceptional progress or encourage their pupils to excel. The distress to schools and individual students may well be repeated on an even greater scale in the next few years.

As Ms Stacey’s June 2014 letter explains :” If the cohort is similar in terms of ability to the previous year’s cohort then we would expect overall results to be similar. When the cohort is different, this approach means the prediction will reflect those differences. The exam boards then report to us if the actual results are significantly different from the predictions and explain why this may be. We will either accept the explanation or challenge those results if we don’t think the explanation is backed up by enough evidence”

A story in this week's Sunday Times ( behind the paywall unfortunately) only adds to the sense of confusion. It claims some grade boundaries are now being lowered by the exam boards in order to compensate for the turmoil anticipated by Ofqual. Though this too may be part of a media strategy to justify what is to come if the exam boards are overruled.

It could be that Ofqual is simply covering it's back. The regulator didn't get an easy ride in 2012. Maybe Glenys Stacey has decided it is better to get her excuses in first this time?But if she is right and the results should be “ approached with caution” isn't it time to think seriously about whether to publish the league tables at all?


The performance tables have always had a dual purpose. The first is to provide information to parents and the wider community about how their local schools are doing. The second is to give government and Ofsted school level data.

Schools, government, Ofsted and individual pupils could still be told their results and schools may well choose to share them with all local parents. If they are as unstable as Ms Stacey predicts, one would hope that Ofsted will take them with a pinch of salt and, in the course of an inspection, focus on the evidence of teaching and progress they see in schools, across all year groups, rather than just relying on one year’s possibly flawed data set. Or is that wishful thinking on my part?

But government could admit this is a period of flux, the dying days of what its own proposed reforms suggest is a discredited system, and mothball the performance tables in their current form. This would alleviate the confusion, and possible misery, that parents and pupils will inevitably experience presented with a set of results by one arm of offialdom (DFE) while the other arm (Ofqual) suggests those same results may not be reliable.

The introduction of the new progress 8 accountability measure begins tentatively this year. Schools will be given “shadow data” for their 2014 results, showing how they would fare under a new metric which measures the progress from KS2 of each individual student across 8 subjects. The will replace the moribund 5 A*-C headline figure. In 2015 schools can opt in to a pilot for this new measure- it is a shame there wasn’t a similar considered approach taken to the changes in exams - and in 2016 the league tables as we know them should no longer exist.

This new and welcome approach is intended to encourage schools to value every child equally and not focus disproportionately on the C/D borderline pupils. It should also help counteract the impact of intake and prior attainment on a school’s rankings and limit the amount of “gaming” that goes on.


Earlier this year the Royal Society of the Arts published an excellent report “Schools with Soul”. The report probes how schools can develop the broader human qualities of their pupils through social, moral, cultural and spiritual education (SMSC), something that often gets relegated to the sidelines once all the hoop jumping is exhausted.

The report suggests designating 2015 as a “year of reflection” in which no new education policies are announced, no Ofsted inspections take place unless schools are judged inadequate and no schools are forced to become academies. It proposes instead a year of detailed thinking about how to develop SMSC at national and local level.

I would add government performance tables to the list of banned activities. Heads, teachers and governors could then do some soul searching too about the real meaning of progress, about what good levels of achievement look like, how we measure improvement and which subjects and qualifications are best for their pupils, rather than for their schools, or indeed for the egos of individual politicians.

This would also send a strong signal from the new Education Secretary that she trusts schools to work through some of these pressing questions on their own, or collaboratively with other local schools, but without the heavy hand of the state hanging over them.

We are not going to get rid of school accountability altogether. Ofsted reports will still exist; parent word on the street does half the job with school choice anyway. But we know that the system of ranking schools by the headline five GCSEs measure has run its course, which is why we are in transition to something new.

Let schools embrace that change gradually, with a bit of breathing space and without being battered by crude rankings (now almost a quarter of a century old) that have lost credibility, may be demoralising for schools and pupils and, if there is another upset this year, will only gratify the enemies of state education in the media, who will seize on any turbulence to damn the whole system.

The world wouldn’t come to an end. In fact it may turn out to be a rather better place.



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Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 05/08/2014 - 19:42

Surely the league tables are created by the media especially the right wing media....the department for education publishes full data sets which can be sorted but there's no mention of leagues. This is because OFSTED and DoE actually understand the complex data sets in relation to context and progress.

However the base data is taken by the media and used in an astonishingly ignorant fashion to pander to middle class narcissism ...hence schools with 100% year 6 SATS pass rate get top rankings without the media realising that these schools may actually be failing their pupils in terms of the progress they should have made.
The OFSTED data dashboard attempted to improve data interpretation from a contextual but is still half-baked and only targetted at governors and parents.

Brian's picture
Tue, 05/08/2014 - 20:13

While recognising the importance of progress against attainment one should be cautious about how the current system of 'expected progress' and 'better than expected progress.' Consider a junior school which takes pupils from a high performing infant school. That infant school may well achieve, for example, 50% Level 3's in reading. In order to demonstrate sufficient pupils managing 'better than expected progress' the junior school should be getting (let's guess, it's no more sensible than that) 36% Level 6's in reading. In 2013 I believe the national outcome at Level 6 in reading was recorded as 0%. 'Junior School Syndrome' is a nightmare for many junior schools and is a small part of an increasingly ludicrous system.
How many parents realise, for example, that a child who attains Level 2a in writing at the end of KS1 will have made 'expected progress' if they just get Level 4 at the end of KS2? They will have progressed through four sub-levels: 3c, 3b, 3a, 4c. A child attaining Level 2c at the end of KS1 who just fails to attain Level 4 at the end of KS 2 will have failed to make 'expected progress.' They will have progressed through five sub-levels :2b, 2a, 3c, 3b, 3a. In other words the child who has made less than expected progress has actually made more progress than the child who has made expected progress.

And just typing out this ludicrous litany of sub-levels brings home what a sorry state we are in.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 10:18

Brian - you're right that "progression", especially when measured by sub-levels, is ludicrous. Children aren't uniform. Progression isn't uniform. It's simplistic to think (as politicians and most of the media do) that children will progress upwards at the same rate providing they have "good" teaching. But progress is uneven - ascents, descents, peaks, troughs and plateaus.

It could be argued that children selected for their ability (as in grammar schools) should make greater progress than children at the bottom of the ability range. Perhaps three levels of progress is too easy for such children while the same expectation is too much for those at the bottom. When I taught bottom sets, progress was often ensuring pupils didn't drop out.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 10:30

Fiona - you're right that it's impossible now to compare schools' results over the years. The way Key Stage 4 results are calculated means it is misleading to compare results for 2013 with any year earlier than 2012 where the figures were recalculated to appear alongside 2013 results in the 2013 performance tables.

The many changes to GCSEs also mean comparison would be invalid. This is made worse by uncertainty about whether goalposts will move as they did with GCSE English in 2012. Schools and pupils try their best to jump through the prescribed hoops only to find the hoops aren't where they were expected to be.

League tables have had a negative effect on education. The OECD warned three years ago there was too much emphasis on raw test results in England. You're right - there should be a moratorium on league tables. But I'd go further and halt Sats and the Year 1 phonics tests. Sats have no educational value and teachers wanting to test the phonics skills of their pupils could do so when appropriate.

Brian's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 16:37

Unfortunately my recent work with a number of schools confirms that the phonics check is having the same effect as SATs. Schools with a low outcome, irrespective of the pupils' progress and attainment in reading (never mind their enjoyment of and enthusiasm for) are, because of concerns about Ofsted, skewing their reading provision to secure better phonics outcomes irrespective of the impact on reading generally. In particular better readers, confident readers who will often have no patience with the nonsense words in the phonics check are being pushed through the phonics hoop just to improve outcomes in the check.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 17:29

This is such a shame because the phonics screening could and should be a diagnostic tool to look forwards and backwards. That is to say, the outcome identifies children post screening who need targeted support and equally gives a school an internal trail to review what they are doing pre the screening and look for any patterns among those who undershot on the screening. Indeed, this is what inspectors should be looking at. Not the bald outcomes e.g. X% got and Y% didn't. Rather we (the school) are monitoring and evaluating the screening to ensure support for those that need it and effecting changes in how we deliver literacy pre screening.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:44

Phonics has had a fantastic impact on the reading outcomes at our school....looking at the lower attainment of our past and up and coming year 6 I have a huge regret the phonics test wasn't introduced earlier by the Labour Party when they first promoted phonics after the Rose Report

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:52

Sorry to appear pedantic but there is no phonics test. There is phonics screening, which is not the same and should not be used as an official or unofficial element of league tabling. :-)

Andy V's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 17:39

I would be extremely happy to see the league tables as we know love and hate them discontinued full stop. Yes, the focus on E&M was and remains relevant but I'd rather question the appropriateness of the blunt instrument of GCSE as the benchmark.

Responding in the context of this what we have to work with and within I am hopeful that Progress 8 will create a more level playing field. That said, I'd much rather schools were wholly transparent about progress and attainment across the entire curriculum and publish on their websites other miscellaneous information e.g. policies that included updated stats (Behaviour and Rewards + a table by subject showing how many sanctions and how many rewards within each year).

There should be a ban on any media source or LA or sponsor creating tables with rankings. This is meaningless and worse still can be wholly misleading / misrepresentative.

PiqueABoo's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 22:09

"and only targetted at governors and parents."
Who else should it be targeted at?

Brian's picture
Thu, 07/08/2014 - 07:13

I think what Rosie meant was that it is very misleading because Ofsted has attempted to make the Data Dashboard easily understood by parents and governors and in doing so has confused simple and simplistic.

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 07/08/2014 - 12:34

"Ofsted has attempted to make the Data Dashboard easily understood by parents and governors"

The fundamental problem with the dashboard is that most parents I know care about what happens to children like theirs: "X really struggles with reading so what would you do for them?", "Y is very good at maths so..?" Percentages of pupils hitting floor-levels isn't that useful to me, beyond those numbers looking very bad or very good (neither of which would thrill me because the latter is suspicious).

Brian's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 06:54

'Percentages of pupils hitting floor-levels isn’t that useful to me, beyond those numbers looking very bad or very good (neither of which would thrill me because the latter is suspicious).'

Suspicious in what way?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:39

The main flaw in the OFSTEd data dashbaord is that it claims to rank similar schools. However their definition of similar is to only look at the schools average Key stage 1 mark and choose the 100 or so schools closest to this figure. OFSTED claim that this adequately allows for any contextual factors. THis is rubbish...our school of 55% free school meals is the highest FSM rate in our dashboard set of 120 schools , some of which have no significant deprivation, diversity or special needs ( they've just got poor key stage 1 provision OR they under score in order to make their Key stage 2 progress look better.

Roll on setting the baseline in reception so our school can get the accolades it deserves!

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 18:13

Rosie, I thought CVA had been scrapped and only VA now existed. A key driver was the assertion that CVA allowed schools to mask underachievement of pupils by citing social issues and this led to sustaining mediocrity. Hence the position that all cohorts of pupils - irrespective of their background and starting points - should be expected to make sustained progress but, and importantly, based on their respective starting points - the mantra was 'progress for all'.

The topic of expected progress is complex and leads to vexed debate but is essentially rooted against levels (down to sub levels) of progress across key stages. This opens up the question, what will expected progress be predicated on after the final KS2 SATs?

PiqueABoo's picture
Wed, 06/08/2014 - 22:53

"parent word on the street does half the job with school choice anyway."

It is much more useful than the stats and school marketing twaddle and tells me more about prospects for a child approximately like mine, however you're inadvertently helping to maintain the myth for the overwhelming majority here (and lots of other areas): there is no choice besides the closest or a much bigger mortgage in the catchment for an allegedly shinier school.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 07/08/2014 - 10:00


"There should be a ban on any media source ....creating tables with rankings."

I know it's annoying sometimes, but is it really worth throwing out the free press baby with that bathwater?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 07/08/2014 - 13:48

Barry - that's an interesting question re "free press". Gove told Leverson he was passionately in favour of a free press. But then he used the free press to spread misrepresentation, inaccuracies and spin. Is the free press complicit in deception if it churns this misrepresentation? Does it become nothing but a mouthpiece for favoured politicians or media owners?

A truly free press wouldn't set out to hoodwink its readers. But publishing league tables does just that. It sells papers of course - I expect paper sales rise when they publish the "100 best state schools" based on nothing more than GCSE results (surprise, surprise, schools that select or those which manage to keep the previously low-attaining pupils out come out top).

Andy V's picture
Thu, 07/08/2014 - 10:45

In view of the crudity of the current tables and woeful ignorance of the media in relation to education and associated data, yes, I believe it is. If the media attempted to understand the latter Gove's merry dance and persistent mis/disinformation would have been pulled up short way before the level of damage we see today.

FJM's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 08:56

Press censorship? What an outrageous suggestion, that the media, whom you obviously don't like, should not be allowed to present tables any way that they wish. Have you reflected for even a moment on how sinister what you are saying is? Even if you are happy to impose censorship of views which you don't like, how do you think it would seem to the public if papers were banned from publishing league tables? It would be a cover up. The media are ignorant of education (i.e. you don't agree with some journalists' views), so silence them. What a lovely future for press freedom! Why stop there? Ban unfavourable comment on the economy, immigration, foreign affairs, and perhaps have a Ministry of Truth. Shame on you!

Brian's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 15:54

'Press censorship? What an outrageous suggestion ...'

Of course. While having a press which can headline any distortion or lies just to sell papers or to promote a view leading to a desired outcome, using dodgy statistics and employing 'experts' who are simply adept at parcelling up drivel so it sounds authoritative is to be applauded.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 16:14

FJM, I can honestly say that I have no sense of shame in what I suggested in the context of my response to the main thread and Barry's comment. I can also assure you that in full acknowledgement of what I said I am sleep well at night.

I do however find your projection of your views onto what I said inflammatory, wildly inaccurate and outrageous e.g. "that the media, whom you obviously don’t like", "Even if you are happy to impose censorship of views which you don’t like", "The media are ignorant of education (i.e. you don’t agree with some journalists’ views), so silence them". Not only do you willfully overlook the context and obviously limitations to what I expressed (i.e. league tables only) but go on to take me to task using the approach you lambaste me for using (i.e. you don't agree with my views so I should be ashamed of myself). Pots and kettles come to mind plus an aroma of hypocrisy.

To be clear. Scrap league tables and there are no tables to be published, misrepresented, misunderstood. That being the case, and as in many other countries around the world the media have no tables to report on and with their track record, which is a matter of public record, of not understanding the data and what it indicates they (the media) should not be encouraged to try and peddle stories they cannot anchor on government data and simply do not fully grasp.

There, and I still have no shame and will still sleep well.

FJM's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 16:26

II am happy to put up with a free press and leave it at that. Others can think about where your journey of interference in the activities of media, whether papers, TV, LSN or whatever else, might lead us.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 16:39

Tell that to Lord Justice Leveson. By inference of your statements a Free Press is one left entirely to its own devices with no accountability or responsibility for its activities. I call that irresponsible hedonism. My suggest, for which I retain full ownership, was not about censorship but rather about informed responsible and accurate journalism - which is something very many in the media view with an unhealthy disregard.

FJM's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 16:49

I am quite happy to share my views of Leveson's report, which I disagree with, as it is not Holy Writ. The three specific causes of his inquiry (phone-hacking, the libelling of the McCanns and other individuals and payments to police officers) are all illegal already and the various cases were dealt with in the courts. The alternative is pre-censorship of the press.
I am happy to take my cue from 'Index on Censorship'; you, if you wish, can follow the views of an establishment figure pandering to politicians still smarting over their own misdeeds being all over the papers.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:09

You highlight a key issue in terms of Leveson and the real reasons for the requirement to have an enquiry. By citing the specific "causes" it appears that you miss the actuality of the questions raised regarding the moral/ethical activities of the media and the lack of accountability and responsibility operating within the media relating to the probity, accuracy and veracity of the stories they reported on.

I also note your persistence is foisting your views onto me, "you, if you wish, can follow the views of an establishment figure pandering to politicians still smarting over their own misdeeds being all over the papers." I am secure in my position which is derived from following the issue of accountability and responsibility within the British media and is by no means taken from any "establishment figure". You will undoubtedly have also read my views and position of British politicians and politics through my LSN posts - none of which come anywhere near the position you ascribe to me.

Rather than engage in indulging in personalised attacks on me - ironically a favoured strategy of politicians - why not engage in a reasoned debate.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 09/08/2014 - 07:14

FJM - see my reply above (7/8/14 1.48pm) to Barry which asked how "free" the press is if it is influenced by owners or by favoured politicians. Advertisers could also be added to this list.

The purpose of free speech is to get to the truth. But free speech is often cited to defend the spreading of untruths. You're right - we need a vigorous, brave, free press. Unfortunately, what we get is a few media outlets owned by the same organisations (eg News Corp) which push particular views and shamefully keep quiet about inconvenient evidence which attacks these views. At the same time, the need to increase sales encourages papers, particularly the tabloids, to indulge in sensationalism.

This has been raised on this site before.

Nigel's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 08:48

The reason that iGCSE entries have risen is that they are easier than GCSEs. I know of a state school that dual entered pupils and found that the iGCSE results were about a grade higher than GCSEs. This is the main reason independent schools use them.

FJM's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 08:57

IGCSE not iGCSE. I for international, not i as in iPod, iTunes etc. I know schools who have chosen IGCSEs because they consider the syllabus content to be better.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:33

The context value added {CVA) is the key parameter...(hence an OBE last year for the head of St Bartholomews. Armley in inner city Leeds).

The CVA looks at the exact numerical score of each child in their year 6 sats and the same for their key stage 1 results. Each child's progress is quantified numerically ( levels aren't involved so affluent schools can't claim it's unfair there's a ceiling on Level 6 awards). Alas this is too complicated for the media to grasp.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 18:19

Rosie, "The CVA looks at the exact numerical score of each child in their year 6 sats and the same for their key stage 1 results. Each child’s progress is quantified numerically ( levels aren’t involved so affluent schools can’t claim it’s unfair there’s a ceiling on Level 6 awards)", are you aware that beneath each level and sub level are fine number values and it is these that form the basis of the calculation. What is or should be important is that the progress is based on each pupils starting point / point of entry in the relevant key stage. It should not be forgotten that the EYFS and KS1 results are teacher based within each school and therefore only the KS2 SATs are externally marked.

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:43

@Andy: Was no reply button below your above Q.: "Suspicious in what way?"

The obvious way i.e. consistent, inconceivably high percentages that suggest 'gaming'. We've had a few examples in the news and there will clearly be more schools who have got away with it like our nearest primary school where the leadership did that and by-and-by having 'improved' the school, moved on to greater things.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:49

Hi PiqueABoo, I think you meant Brian 8.8.14@6.54pm.

Brian's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 18:22

Indeed. By 'gaming' do you mean cheating? Does it go on? Of course it does. Are all high examination results due to cheating ... ridiculous!

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 18:32

"I think you meant Brian"
Mea culpa, sorry.

PiqueABoo's picture
Fri, 08/08/2014 - 18:51

"Are all high examination results due to cheating … ridiculous!"

I didn't say anything about that.

FJM's picture
Sat, 09/08/2014 - 19:11

The alternative to a free press in which owners, advertisers, those who buy the papers pressure groups, letter-writers, campaign groups and so on all attempt to have their say is one in which another body controls its output. Where does this currently happen? the list of such countries is probably unappealing. We already have a suggestion that the press would no longer be able to use freely available data to construct tables etc. "There should be a ban on any media source or LA or sponsor creating tables with rankings. This is meaningless and worse still can be wholly misleading / misrepresentative." Would newspapers be closed down or editors imprisoned for using data in this way? Where would it stop? The fact that this has not produced more uproar from LSN contributors is startling indeed.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 09/08/2014 - 19:36

"Would newspapers be closed down or editors imprisoned for using data in this way?". The hyperbolic exaggeration and prophesies of doom, gloom and disintegration of the press continue. Where will this line of woeful depression lead us?

It would be more positive to stay within and engage with the context of what has been said rather than try and drive the discussion to press martyrdom.

FJM's picture
Sat, 09/08/2014 - 19:52

On the contrary, it is important. How would the errant press be dealt with? You have suggested restrictions, so it is reasonable to ask how they would be enforced, or haven't you thought of that?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 09:18

All of you good and well intentioned people are missing the key point. It is not possible to judge the quality of any school by any kind of pseudo-statistical jiggery-pokery with the aggregated exam results of its pupils.

This is because results do not, and never can, take appropriate and valid account of the diversity of intake cohorts.

Ah but, I here you say. Surely schools can be judged on the progress that their pupils make.

Only if there is a statistically sound base-line. This is impossible if the base line providing institutions have to compete in a market based on their 'base-line' results. Every school's 'best results ever' - PR bull****, is the next school's flawed base line data. This rules out SATs and GCSE results.

Universal CATs testing at 11 could provide a national base-line that would at least have some statistical rigour and be free from the corruption of marketisation. But why do it? 'Schools must be accountable', I here you say. True, but to whom. and who should make the judgements? My answer is local LEA inspector/advisors, who are themselves held to account by a slimmed down HMI, independent of government, reporting to a permanent non-political National Education Commission with a carefully balanced membership reflecting academics, practitioners, parents, industry and business (in that order).

FJM's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 10:17

I must agree with Roger about pseudo-statistical jiggery-pokery.
As far as the league tables are concerned, have there been any studies into how much notice people take of them? What other factors are considered by parents when choosing a school? I glance at them when they are published, look for the results of a few schools with which I am particularly familiar, then forget about the whole thing. Are schools worrying too much about their importance? I think that most people who are that interested in choosing a school will look online at Ofsted reports, ask friends and neighbours what they know, talk to existing parents of pupils, visit and so on.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 11/08/2014 - 14:24

As already discussed elsewhere on LSN the issue of the middle tier and school accountability is a vexed one but setting that aside what has not been addressed is 'what should schools be held to account for?' (e.g. what levels attainment). This leads to the question, 'who should set the attainments goals?'.

From that perspective, and no slight is intended, to baldly say schools are answerable to the middle tier that in turn is answerable to Ofsted/HMCI leaves crucial issues unresolved.

Additionally, and as indicated in an earlier contribution, whereas it is highly desirable - to the point of being an ultimate goal - to remove party political ideologues from the operation of education policy. It is unrealistic to remove politicians from the equation altogether.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 12:01

FJM - I think that before the 1997 Labour government you were right. My experience was that most concerned parents were well able to judge school's exam results on the basis of local knowledge of strengths and weaknesses based on talking to friends and neighbours and their children that attended local schools. Primary heads could also be generally relied on to give good advice and reassure nervous parents.

For the discerning parent there was also the school prospectus that had statutory content including the vital table of subject-by-subject exam results giving the numbers entered and numbers of passes at each grade. This also gave a clear description of the KS4 curriculum. It was easy to see the range of subjects offered and, with a little bit of expertise, to work out curriculum opportunities and attainment across the ability range.

I think I can claim some responsibility for the removal of these tables from the statutory content of the school prospectus. It dates back to 2005 when I teamed up with a professional statistician, Roger Davies, and with the support of the TES, we attempted to analyse the Key Stage 4 (KS4) curriculum and 2005 results of the schools in the 2004 ‘most improved list’. This work was featured in the TES in January 2006 and our full paper ‘Curriculum Change and School Improvement’ was published on the TES website. The TES journalist at that time, who worked with us on this project was Warwick Mansell, now an independent writer on educational matters and author of Mansell W (2008), Education by Numbers – The Tyranny of Testing, Politico’s.

We showed that such school improvement was linked to poor comparative performance in English and maths. We demonstrated this by calculating %5+A*-C including English and maths divided by %5+A*-C and then relating this to the level of DfES defined school improvement from 2001 to 2004. This demonstrated that the most improved schools were generally characterised by a big difference when C grades in English and maths were included.

We went on to show that such ‘school improvement’ was largely explained by the introduction of one or more of the newly introduced GNVQ 'vocational equivalent' courses, where a single GNVQ pass could count as four A*-C GCSE passes and where pass rates were often one hundred percent.

We showed that the degree of improvement as indicated by the place in the ‘100 most improved schools list’ for 2004 was strongly related to the average number of A*-C grades attributable to GNVQs.

Our second finding concerned provision of courses in science, European languages and history. We found a tendency for GNVQ science to replace GCSE science to such an extent that in some of the most improved schools no pupils took GCSE science courses at all. We showed that ‘school improvement’ was also linked to poor provision and take up of European languages and history and that the ‘most improved’ schools tended to have the most impoverished curriculum in terms of pupil access to these subjects.

They still do!

Our third finding concerned the problems we encountered in obtaining curriculum information from schools. We believed the issue of curriculum entitlement to be important and that parents and the wider community should have had access to information about the range of examination courses available in schools, which subjects were compulsory, which were optional, and the restrictions that were placed on subject choice. There should also have been full disclosure of the examination entries and results in each subject. Despite being able to call upon the administrative resources of the TES and the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) we had difficulty obtaining this information from many schools. Unwillingness to disclose curriculum information and subject-by-subject exam results was linked to the degree of ‘school improvement’. The 'most improved' schools tended to be the most secretive.

This was the dawn of the age of 'spectacular school improvement', which is regrettably still with us. The Labour government propaganda was very successful in conning parents into believing that school quality was linked to such spectacular school improvement. At the same time, the appalling Blunkett introduced his macho 'zero tolerance of failure' policy backed by floor targets that resulted in massive pressure on all schools to adopt the GNVQ scam and its later manifestations.

Much to its shame, Ofsted became the inspection arm of government enforcing the 'zero tolerance of failure' policies that facilitated the first wave of expansion of Labour's Academies.

So I am afraid to say that you can blame the 1997 Labour government and all of the following truly dire Education Secretaries (with the noble exception of Estelle Morris, who walked away) for the rise of league based marketisation of schools.

Even in the revolutionary period of the free market zealot Michael Gove, Labour shadow ministers could not bring themselves to admit the true scale of the disaster that their governments had visited onto the English education system. Although some recent progress has been made, Tristram Hunt still has a long way to go in terms of admitting past mistakes before he can gain the credibility that a clear break with past mistakes requires.

This then is a very long winded was of saying that expecting parents not to take any notice of league tables could be a long way off and will certainly not happen this side of the General Election. Free market dogma will always come before real educational improvement for the current government, which has still not got over its immense surprise and delight that New Labour had done all the 'heavy lifting' for them.

There is a closely parallel story to be told about our hospitals, where New Labour again did all the 'heavy lifting' by creating Foundation Trusts, which are the health service equivalent to Academisation. In both cases Labour created the necessary platforms for privatisation, the ultimate Blairite vision.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 13/08/2014 - 03:08

When councillors are elected they become representatives of all of the people, not just those that voted for them or which support their political party, so of course councillors and MPs should have a role in the national and local systems that are needed to manage schools. Any national commission for education would need to be clear about its founding principles - have a constitution if you like. This would need to set out regulatory standards and expectations for all schools including admissions, curriculum and accountability. Elected representatives would rightly have a role in such a system but not on a party political basis.

FJM's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 12:13

Thank you, that is very interesting. I recall reading about the dodgy GNVQs being counted as equal to four GCSEs at about the time which you mention. As far as I can recall, a school in Telford pioneered some sort of IT qualification of that nature and it propelled itself right up the tables. I also became aware of other schools near to my then school which dumped languages, double or triple science and other traditional subjects to boost their league table performance by replacing them with all sorts of dubious pseudo-qualifications. What is to be done?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 14:50

FJM - The school was/is Thomas Telford school. It was indeed a pioneer in all sorts of ways - a long and interesting story.

You ask what is to be done. There is only one hopeful scenario with any hope of coming to fruition but you won't like it. This is that Ed Milliband reads posts like mine, that of Rupert Higham on 5 August and many others on LSN that make the same arguments. He then gives Tristram a kick in right direction before the manifesto comes out, and the Conservatives don't get an outright majority at the General Election. The best way to help achieve this outcome is keep putting pressure on the Labour Party, Vote Labour in May and try to get the message to as many teachers and others as possible to do the same.

If necessary Ed will have to form a government with the Lib Dems. They will agree with anything to get power and most of their activists agree with us anyway.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 11/08/2014 - 14:39

We are all impacted by the rapidity and breadth of change in education, which can often leave one feeling breathless and bemused. That said, and I've fallen into this from time to time - looking over ones shoulder can perpetuate misunderstanding. Yes, the rush to GNVQs offering multiple GCSE equivalence was wrong. Yes, it was inspired by the crudity of league tables and misguided focus of school leaders leading to selling pupils short. However, time and change waits for none of us and the Wolf report went to the heart of this. Thus when coupled with the impending introduction of Progress 8 the scenario has changed and is changing significantly and will enable a broader more valid and relevant curriculum offer.

Added to this has been the drive on progress for all (e.g. SEN, low, middle and high ability groups), the move from CVA to VA, the curtailing of resit marks contributing to VA, and a continuing focus on literacy and numeracy all mean that it far more difficult for those school leaders inclined to 'game' or 'play' the system.

I too am in favour of using CATs and believe that in the new age of 'assessment without levels' they can become a vehicle for schools to create a robust and externally validated indicator of progress and attainment targeting.

FJM's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 15:11

'A pioneer in all sorts of ways.' I can quite imagine what you mean.
I am hoping for a Marxist style outcome: league tables etc collapse under the weight of their own contradictions.
However much I despair, and have done for many years, about education, it's not enough to wish for a Labour victory.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 10/08/2014 - 16:48

FJM - Quote from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book

If you don't hit it, it won't fall

In a democracy your only weapon is your vote and those of like minded people

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/08/2014 - 09:12

FJM - quote from Michael Gove: "I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the steadfast support he has shown for state schools in his constituency, including the outstanding comprehensive, Thomas Telford."

House of Commons 23 June 2014


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