Don’t be misled by school league tables based on exam results alone – Brian Wilson

As Scottish education minister, he got rid of crude exam-based school league tables. Here, Brian Wilson explains what’s wrong with them.

Parents should not judge a school on its exam results alone (Picture: John Devlin)

The week’s least surprising news was that people in poor areas are dying from Covid-19 at twice the rate of those in more prosperous ones. How could it be otherwise?

In the normal course of events, there are variations of over 20 years’ life expectancy between parts of Scotland which lie a decent walk, or social light years, apart from one another. So why would Covid-19 strike differently?

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This is a perpetual scandal yet so familiar it is barely commented upon, far less addressed in any systematic way. Advances in the first decade of this century, particularly in reducing child poverty, have been squandered in the second.

Poverty is more likely to create “underlying health conditions”; wages are lower, diet poorer, aspirations inter-generationally depressed. The cycle is relentless and can only be broken at its starting point – the earliest years of life – which requires a sustained political will that simply does not exist. It was grimly appropriate that this week also saw the annual ritual of School League Tables commanding headlines about “Scotland’s best and worst schools”, according to this crude, cruel measurement.

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Again at number one is Jordhanhill, which sets entry criteria that shut out kids living far closer than many who are ushered through its gates. Knightswood High along the road comes in at number 278. This slap in the face reflects a league table of elitism and nothing else.

It would be a major achievement in incompetence for the so-called “best” schools not to turn out far higher proportions of pupils with five Highers – the chosen measure – than schools which teach the children of the poor. So what exactly is being celebrated?

Publication of these tables began in the 1990s to underpin Tory mythology about “parental choice”. On learning the relative standings of schools, aspirational parents in Wester Hailes would fill in a form and pack their little ones off to Boroughmuir. Aye, right.

As Scottish education minister in the pre-devolution interregnum, I got rid of these league tables. We set up a Working Group on Standards to devise more useful ways of informing parents, recognising success and setting targets.

The inspectorate produced “value added” tables which created a very different picture. When socio-economic indicators were fed in to reflect catchment areas, it became clear that some of the “best” schools were seriously underperforming while others far down the league were delivering miracles.

I need hardly say this approach was unwelcome in some quarters and little was heard subsequently of “value-added”. It is even more disappointing, 20 years on, to find crude tables still feasted upon as if they proved anything other than the extreme range of economic conditions which exist within our caring, sharing little land.

The tables are not published by the Scottish Government but are based on published information. What is the point of this? Gaining five Highers is a personal achievement rather than an institutional one. So why provide raw material that is so open to misinterpretation?

With overall standards falling against key indicators, who needs to reaffirm the obvious – that schools in prosperous areas turn out far more pupils with five Highers than schools in poor ones? What else does that prove? The challenge that matters should focus on levelling-up through investment and early intervention which – over time – would transform educational outcomes and go far towards reducing other inequalities, culminating in the appalling disparities in life expectancy.

If early intervention had been the unremitting, number one priority in 20-plus years since devolution, we would be looking at a significantly different society, more than justifying the political and financial investment required.

There is much talk about “when this is over...” and how things must be different. Care workers must be valued. The NHS must be better funded, and so on. Some of it will happen and most of it won’t.

The challenge least likely to be addressed is the most fundamental – a levelling-up of prospects for those who are statistically predestined for relatively short lives of under-fulfilment, in other words the poorest communities of Scotland and the UK.

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