School league tables: useful tool or source of confusion?

School league tables can be a useful aid for relocating families but have long been a cause of dispute. The Independent Schools Show was a perfect forum for airing the arguments for and against.

School league tables: useful tool or source of confusion?
At November’s Independent Schools Show 2017 in Battersea Park, London, Alastair McCall, editor of The Sunday Times Schools Guide – Parent Power – made the case for the value of school league tables whilst Dr Niall Hamilton, Marlborough College’s senior admissions tutor explained why he believes that league tables are on their way out.

What are school league tables?

School league tables were introduced in 1992 as part of the conservative government’s desire to improve public services in the UK. They are primarily based on a school’s examination performance. The tables are created from government data – primary schools are measured on children’s achievements in the national curriculum Sats tests at age 11, the results of GCSEs and A Levels are compiled at secondary school level.Proponents argue that they drive up standards, as schools are kept accountable. However, critics believe that the statistics are too crude to truly measure the quality of a school and its overall benefit to the pupils.

The case for school league tables

“We publish Parent Power for parents,” said Alastair McCall, editor of the schools guide published by The Sunday Times. “Choosing the right school is one of the most important decisions that they will have to make and Parent Power is a part of that decision. We publish the guide because parents still want it.”
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 The Sunday Times has just published the 25th edition of Parent Power – the annual schools guide that ranks schools, both independent and state, by their examination results. Such is its popularity.“All schools are compared on the same basis – there is a level playing field,” explained Mr McCall, “but you should never choose a school based on league tables alone. It is vital to visit a school Open Day, to meet the head teacher and to ask whether the school would be a good fit for your child.”Top of this year's Parent Power rankings is St Stephen’s Primary School in East Ham, a state school where most of the children have English as a second language and a fifth are on free school meals. The school didn’t even make it into the top 500 last year when the rankings were based on level 5 Sats results from the preceding three years. This year a lot has changed; new, more rigorous Sats have been introduced and levels have disappeared being replaced with a 41-point scale. This has meant that the Parent Power scoring has also had to change.Inevitably this leads to the question of how effective league tables are in comparing schools when the goal posts seem to move so frequently.

The argument against school league tables

“League tables have had their day,” said Niall Hamilton, senior admissions tutor at Marlborough College. “Schools are much more open than they used to be and they are much sharper places following the introduction of reformed GCSEs and A Levels.”Mr Hamilton explained how difficult it is to compare a selective school – one that therefore has the most academic children – against a non-selective school, which achieves excellent results.
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“Grades are important but the pressure on schools has lead to some of them barring children with weak academic records from entering the sixth form to avoid the school performing badly in league tables,” he said.This practise came to light in the media over the summer when it emerged that St Olave’s Grammar School in Kent had tried to force out sixth form students because of poor performance in their AS levels. The school, and several others, were criticised over trying to play the system in order to improve league table results.“Great schools will rise above children who are weak academically but have other skills,” said Mr Hamilton.“There are many skills that are needed to be successful in life – communication, team work, getting on with people – these are all skills that employers want but we are obsessed with examination results. Some schools may not feature highly in a league table but they are brilliant at developing some of these vital skills.“It is important to take league tables with a pinch of salt. My advice would be to use websites, visit the schools and make a decision for yourself. Exam results are just a small part of the decision in choosing a school.”
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