Carole Ford: School league tables don’t add up

Jordanhill School in Glasgow: Top end of the league tables. Main picture: Robert Perry
Jordanhill School in Glasgow: Top end of the league tables. Main picture: Robert Perry
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These misleading and uninformative figures have an extremely damaging effect on schools near the bottom, which are already disadvantaged, writes Carole Ford

FOR the staff and pupils of the schools languishing at the bottom of the recently published school league tables, recent weeks have hardly been the season to be jolly. Nor has it been for the directors of education of the authorities, which vie for bottom spot on an annual basis.

Everyone enjoys a good league table, not just for the pleasant feelings associated with success but also for the schadenfreude associated with others’ lack of it. School league tables appear to give parents useful information, but the sad truth is that they are uninformative at best and completely misleading at worst. And the negative impact on schools serving areas of relative deprivation is much greater than the positive impact of the good news stories.

The problems with league tables are both technical, in relation to seriously flawed statistical methods, and educational, in relation to perverse incentives for schools and the demotivating effect on staff and pupils who are already labouring under serious disadvantage.

School league tables excite a great deal of interest. They deliver a very simple message, something which is always more welcome than a complicated one.

For parents, selecting the right school is an important decision and league tables seem to offer a straightforward comparison on which to base it. In reality, only around 3 per cent of parents use the placing request system to select a secondary school for their child, although this begs the question of how many choose a house on the basis of school catchment areas. It is important to parents paying a premium to live in the East Renfrewshires or East Dunbartonshires of this world, that the price has been worth it. But the true price of the tables is their negative impact on Scottish education as a whole.

The technical flaws in league tables are easily illustrated. In one newspaper, Jordanhill School was identified as the “top” state school, a position it has apparently held for nine years in a row. Simultaneously in another newspaper, the league tables were used to cite Jordanhill’s “continuing slide” over the last two years. Why the disparity? Simply because a league table is constructed from a single statistic; choose a different statistic, from the myriad available, and a different table emerges.

There is always a token nod to the impact of socio-economic factors on academic achievement. Unfailingly, this involves merely the percentage of pupils entitled to free meals (FME). Currently, the national average figure for this is 15.5 per cent. By my count, every school in the “top” 30 has less than this level and most of them, 24, have a figure of less than half that. What exactly are we measuring here? Affluence?

Supporters of league tables will then point to the fact that schools with the same, or similar, FME statistics may have very differing results, surely an indication of differing performance. It is indeed the case that results may differ substantially. But the FME figure only tells us something about the number of pupils in relative poverty; it tells us absolutely nothing about the remaining pupils, who will be by far the majority in even the most deprived areas. Take two schools with an FME of 20 per cent. One may be located in a generally affluent area which incorporates a small pocket of deprivation – 80 per cent of the school intake, therefore, benefits from all the advantages associated with affluence. The other may be located in much less affluent circumstances, with the remaining 80 per cent only marginally above the FME level. These schools, classed together on FME percentage, are actually serving quite different cohorts.

So the interpretation of figures is anything but straightforward. Moreover, the figures themselves are seriously suspect. For example, the denominator for all percentages is the entire S4 cohort, whether pupils return to school or not. In less affluent areas, the school leaving rate from S4 is much higher so, in effect, schools serving disadvantaged pupils are assessed on the achievements of pupils who are no longer in school. Is there any wonder that staff in such schools feel completely demotivated by published tables?

League tables confirm on an annual basis that socio-economic factors are almost totally responsible for disparities in educational outcomes, but the almost is important. There are a small number of anomalous schools which appear to be bucking the trend.

Closer inspection reveals that they are either in rural locations, with high levels of economic deprivation but low levels of social instability, or have a high percentage of recent immigrants, again economically challenged but from stable, aspiring families, or offer a particular speciality which parents have gone to the trouble of choosing for their child: music, language, single sex. In other words, parental aspirations trump economic factors.

The fall-out from this simplistic and inaccurate system has negative effects on individual pupils and the system as a whole. Every target-led system suffers from perverse incentives, whether it is fudged health service waiting times or budget airline flight times. Education is no exception. Schools have altered both the curriculum and exam presentation policies to improve statistics rather than the educational experience for pupils.

For example, since a key statistic is the number of pupils who achieve five Highers in S5, pressure is brought to bear on pupils to sit five even if it is not in their interests to do so.

A pupil who achieves CCCCC at Higher level has only 250 points in the UCAS system; AAAA yields 320, ABBB yields 275. Much more importantly, very few courses in higher education are interested in C passes at all. A quick glance at entry requirements reveals barely a reference to a C pass; it is all about As and Bs. For the school, AAAA represents failure and CCCCC success. For the pupil, it is the reverse.

Just how many pupils have been encouraged to sit five Highers when four, to achieve better grades, would have been the better option?

Foreign languages in our schools have also fallen victim to the league table culture. A pass at Higher level in a foreign language is more difficult to achieve than in many other subjects. This is not a subjective, elitist comment; it is a statistical fact based on SQA analyses of Higher results and prior achievement levels in S4. Schools aiming to maximise Higher statistics are very unlikely to advise pupils to study a language. Yet facility with language is a serious asset to individual pupils and collectively to the country.

Even pastoral care is affected. Since league tables are concerned with pass rates in S5, pupil mentoring systems may be withdrawn in S6 because results no longer “count”. But for the individual pupil, it is the two-year set of results which matter, not the one-year dash.

Following publication of one set of tables, a former colleague in a fairly challenging school urged her class to put more effort into a particular piece of work. A boy bitterly remarked: “Why should we? This school is rubbish and we are all rubbish.” Is any league table worth this?

• Carole Ford is the retired headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy and former president of School Leaders Scotland