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Justice League? The problem with performance tables

For reasons that will become clear, I’ve been waiting for a while to write this, but here’s my view: School Performance Tables are misleading, iniquitous and damage the system, and we should move away from them as soon as possible.

This is not an argument against accountability. I’m not arguing against publication of results and I’m not advocating a lack of transparency. I’m specifically talking about the reduction of all the outcomes of students in a school to a single figure or a tiny handful of figures, and the use of that to publicly rank schools, allowing anyone, including parents or prospective employees, to ‘Find and Compare Schools’ as the DfE website banner proclaims.

I’m not even arguing against them on the grounds that I think they’re wrong and unethical (although I do). The case against league tables is that I think they are damaging and ineffective, for three main reasons. They don’t give an accurate picture, they act against the interests of students, and they actively work against school and system improvement.

Firstly, they are inaccurate.

The stated aim of league tables is to help parents know how well a school is doing. This can help them to make sure they choose the right one for their child, and to hold the school to account for performance. However, the reality is that schools are simply too complex and multifaceted for this to give useful information. Each parent will have their own criteria for defining the perfect school – for one it will be a level of academic excellence to facilitate a university place, for another it might be an ability to provide targeted support for a child with special needs, for someone else it may be the opportunities to take part in extra-curricular arts or sports. You might get a sense of this through an Ofsted report, you could probably explore it through a school visit, but there is no way a league table can capture this information. The fact that the key measure changes so often is an indication that there is no absolute measure that satisfies all beholders.

This is before we consider the inbuilt inaccuracy of using a norm-referenced system to make absolute judgements about quality. Every year, we will see the news stories that talk about whether pass rates have gone up or the proportion of top grades in a subject has fallen, with very little mention of the fact that this is entirely the result of decisions taken by Ofqual. Across the board, average attainment of students might have risen, it might have fallen, it seems unlikely that it mirrors exactly the profile of exam passes, but still for every school that rises in the league tables, there’s a school that falls.

Another built in reason for inaccuracy is the time lag between provision and outcomes. League tables are usually accompanied by lurid headlines about the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ schools, but unless GCSE outcomes are the product of cramming and gaming, they are telling you something about progress from KS2 – in other words, a five-year journey. So much could have changed during that period that any sensible statistical analysis would urge extreme caution.

Secondly, they act against the interests of students

How have we evolved a system where the interests of schools can be in direct opposition to the interests of their students? Unfortunately, that is often the case. We have all seen the farcical ‘gaming’ dance that takes place, where schools choose qualifications solely because of the impact they have on league tables. ECDL was a stain on the system, whose sole purpose (if we’re honest) was to hoover up a qualification that gave an advantage in Progress 8 for very little investment of time or teaching expertise. If anyone would argue that they did it because it had merits, I would ask why, as soon as it disappeared from league tables, did virtually every school in the country stop doing it?

It’s still going on. Reports of schools entering whole cohorts for English as a foreign language, regular ‘wink-wink’ emails from companies offering to come in to school for a few days and run a premium qualification that ‘counts in the performance tables’, SEND students forced through inappropriate curricula because it’s better for the school for them to score a 1 or a 2 in a GCSE than to succeed on a functional skills route.

Then there’s the student destined to drag the school down. No wonder permanent exclusions rise as GCSEs loom large. The evidence of off-rolling is stark, schools very often paying a premium for an Alternative Provision to place them on roll, students sitting exams as external students, parents choosing to home-educate at the most crucial time of their academic lives.

Long before we get to the business end of KS4, league tables are having an impact on curricula – extended Key Stage 4 courses, basket-filling, using GCSE assessment criteria from the start of Year 7. I welcome the renewed focus on curriculum that has been given momentum by Ofsted, but fear that unless it reaches deep into Key Stage 4, its impact will be limited. My question to schools would be: what curriculum decisions have you taken that are in the interests of students but may adversely affect your Progress 8 score? It seems inconceivable that the designer of Progress 8 has managed to get the perfect balance of subjects for every child in the country.

Thirdly, they have a damaging effect on school improvement across the system.

True collaboration drives improvement, particularly systemic improvement. It’s well-researched and widely accepted. Indeed, there are many policy initiatives that are explicitly designed to encourage collaboration and sharing of good practice.

To say that high-stakes performance tables militate against collaboration seems axiomatic. The performance tables website is designed to make it easy for parents to use a map tool to find local schools and create a ranking list. When so many schools are desperate for the funding that comes with the student, a low placing on that list can be disastrous. Many great schools, and principled Heads will do what’s right and I know collaboration happens within Trusts or formal partnerships, but how can it be a good thing when the failure of the school down the road, with all the impact on the lives of young people, is good news for me and my school.

At the same time that Ofsted have realized that great schools plan a long-term coherent curriculum journey, with aspirational goals for all students, we are still running a parallel system that priorities short-term solutions, narrows the focus of teaching and learning, and excludes many of our most vulnerable students. We are now evolving a system where the two main accountability mechanisms for schools – Ofsted and Performance Tables – are potentially acting in conflict.

A final point, but not an insignificant one is the impact of league table culture on the individuals at the sharp end, particularly school leaders. My doctoral study looked at the emotional impact of Ofsted ‘Inadequate’ judgements on Head Teachers (http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/50957/). These case studies of four remarkable colleagues who went through a public trauma that ate at the core of their professional identity, brought home how personally damaging public naming and shaming can be (for anyone who points out that it is the school, not the Head Teacher that is identified, I can only assume they haven’t been in that position).

I believe that as long as we keep this system, then politicians’ words about school leaders well-being ring hollow.

These are not new thoughts of mine, but I’ve not felt able to be quite so open about them before. You can probably guess why. One of the schools I work in has been at the wrong end of league tables in recent years, and despite the fact that the staff and school community have done a remarkable job in moving the school forward, providing an amazing quality of education and care, to the point where I believe this has been a high-performing school for a couple of years, it’s only now showing through in results. We’ve had a good week, and this year I’ll sleep easy the night before league tables are published, but we’ll do our best to remember what it’s like to be on the other side.

It’s perfectly possible to publish detailed information about a school, including performance data and the most recent Ofsted report, in fact most schools already do. We don’t need league tables, and the sooner we move away from them, the better.

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The law of unintended consequences – how a greater emphasis on academic rigour is leading to a decline in academic subjects.

This last week has been a defining week for another cohort of Year 13 students as they have collected their A levels and used them to confirm their place on the next stage. In truth, it has been a week of few major headlines – a slight dip in A and A* grades, entries for girls in Science overtaking boys, minor controversy around grade thresholds in Maths.

However, what was also reported is that in the last year, there has been a 13% decline in the number of students studying English at A Level. This is on the back of a precipitous drop in the proportion of students studying languages over the last few years, and a slow decline in the proportion of students studying History and Geography. Although Science entries are up, most of the subjects traditionally at the heart of the curriculum seem to be in decline (Maths has also declined this year, amid concerns over the impact of new GCSEs).

The irony is that the opposite should be happening, and that the explicit policy direction over the last decade has been to strengthen the traditional curriculum. The introduction of the concept of the EBacc, now a Government ambition for 90% of students at KS4 (monitored by Ofsted), the compulsory resitting of English and Maths in 6th Forms, the downgrading of vocational qualifications – all should be bolstering traditional academic subjects.

The truth is that they’re not, and this decline is moving swiftly past the alarming stage to become irreversible.

When major curriculum or exam reform happens, the impact is not always seen instantly, and can take a few years to work through the system. These reforms are not piecemeal or incoherent. They are based on a Gove-ian vision of the curriculum that asserts that students (and society) are best-served by a rigorous focus on challenging subject matter delivered through a Hirschian ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. They have been supported by policy initiatives, such as EBacc, redesign of performance tables including Progress 8, and the new Ofsted curriculum focus.

I accept that they are based on aspiration and a sincere belief that this approach leads to improvement, including for less-advantaged students. As Michael Gove said at the start of his journey: ‘If our state schools were a little more elitist, if they tested their pupils with greater rigour and frequency and brought home the difference between failure and success more forcibly they would have more pupils at Oxford.’

However, there appear to be problems. English is the area that has raised the greatest alarms this time round. According to a report in The Guardian, English language A-level numbers dropped from just under 18,000 in 2018 to less than 14,000 this year. Uptake was also down for English literature, from 41,000 to 37,500. Teachers and school leaders put the blame fairly and squarely at the door of new ‘more rigorous’ GCSE courses, courses that require hugely increased amounts of rote learning, greater use of historical texts and analysis of excerpts. By the time they get to 16, many students have had enough.

The report quoted an assistant headteacher who said: “GCSE English language is sucking the joy out of the study of how we communicate: the power and beauty in words. English literature favours those with excellent memories; it has reduced our most magnificent pieces of writing to a collection of quotations.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “It is right that we should have the highest aspirations for all our students, but this should not equate to turning exams into a joyless slog. We are concerned that the current GCSE specifications are failing to encourage a love of English in young people and this year’s entries at A-level appear to confirm

The Department for Education was quick to express that reformed GCSEs in English are “better preparing pupils for further study at A-level.” Well, that may be true, but if they’re not studying it at A Level, it’s irrelevant.

Languages are an area that I have a particular interest in. Simply put, many students no longer study languages at KS5 because they’re too hard and too boring. I’ve had lots of conversations with students to try and convince them of the life-expanding benefits of learning a language, of the range of art and literature that opens up when you learn another language, of the joys of overseas study and the many employment possibilities that open up for language graduates. But it comes down to this – ‘I need the best A-levels possible to get into the best university possible and I’ve got two years to get them, so why would I pick a subject that is too hard and too boring.’ It’s an argument I usually lose.

GCSE language specs are formulaic, dry and lacking in relevance. The saddest thing I can say about them is that in my experience, the ability to speak and understand a language with any level of fluency or improvisation is almost irrelevant to success at GCSE. I applaud the amazing MFL teachers out there who work tirelessly to breathe joy into the moribund corpse of the GCSE MFL curriculum, but they’re very often flogging a dead horse.

I’m in favour of supporting our declining EBacc subjects. I’m totally in favour of academic rigour and challenging our brightest students. However, I’m also in favour of looking at the evidence, and changing a policy that’s not working. This is not an argument about pedagogy or instruction, or knowledge-based approaches – it’s an argument that in a buyer’s market, we need a product we can sell.

How have we got to the point where some of the glories of our education and culture – the study of history, geography, literature, even mathematics – are seen as a chore, or irrelevant by so many? How is it that subjects that should open a door into understanding the world don’t seem relevant to the culture and society of young people?

We need curriculum content that combines modern and historical voices, that draws from sources across the world, that reflects the reality of our students’ world with due diversity in race, gender, sexuality and disability. We also need a balance between content acquisition and student agency, between knowledge and acquisition. Most of all, we need to understand that to get Key Stage 5 right, we need to start with Key Stage 4.