The league tables are a game – don’t take them too seriously

18 January 2009
The Daily Telegraph
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My old school is now one of the ‘most improved’ in the country. Yet I’m not sure it’s so different from a decade ago. I will never forget the day when I learned that the secondary school in which I was teaching had come bottom of the School Performance Tables. That was more than 10 years ago, but the publication last week of the latest league tables reminded me of the utter demoralisation I felt at the time.

It was my first year of teaching, and it was also in the early years of the league tables. There was an atmosphere of mild hysteria in the school (I shall not mention the name of the school, for the sake of its children, but suffice to say it was in an a very poor area of an inner city). The Tory government of the time had been threatening to close down failing schools and our establishment seemed to be clearly at risk. Some of the staff were wandering around in a daze wondering if they were soon going to be out of a job.

Many of the teachers had no idea that the school was so bad at getting its pupils through their exams. Only 3 per cent of pupils had achieved five GCSE passes at A to C level. Quite a lot of the staff felt sad; it was as if they had lost their innocence. The smoky staffroom was a particularly bleak place on the morning that we received the news. The piles of exercise books strewn across the tables seemed to be accusing us of negligence, the mouldy coffee cups were symbols of our laziness, the slovenly atmosphere somehow suggested that we were reprobates.

Normally the staff were quite jokey, but no one was laughing on that morning. For years everyone had been in a state of blissful ignorance of the true nature of their competence. Now, hunched over their stained coffee mugs, they were being forced to reflect that they were working in the school whose disinction was that it had been identified as the nadir of all educational establishments.

Some grew angry and outspoken, peppering their complaints about the Government with expletives. Others wryly accepted their position. I remember particularly one young teacher, a football fan, who jokily punched his fist into his palm exclaiming, "We’re like Millwall, we’re bottom, but we’re hard!" The majority of the pupils were the children of immigrant families and few understood the significance of the statistics – their English was too poor – but the brighter ones certainly did.

"Does this mean we’re a really bad school, sir?" I tried to reassure them that it didn’t, but they weren’t convinced because I couldn’t even convince myself. I left the school shortly after and now, more than 10 years later, having worked in a variety of other establishments I have been able to put that dismal experience into a wider context. I realise that the statistics that put that school at the very bottom of the list gave a false impression.

Discipline, while not exemplary, was not terrible, and there were many hard-working teachers who achieved remarkable things with the students. However, the school’s position in the league tables did have an effect. Within a couple of years of their publication the head was replaced by a new man who was much cannier about how to play the system.

He identified the potential high-flyers among the children – the ones who he felt could pass GNVQs (vocational qualifications which count for statistical purposes as GCSEs). He taught them himself and gave them special attention. He also took the cynical but, in the circumstances, entirely understandable decision that most of the pupils should study Bengali and take the GCSE in it.

There was a very high pass rate which improved the results enormously. It was hardly surprising: these kids were Bengali. The head’s new measures produced the desired result: the school rose steadily in the league tables and last week it was named as one of the most improved in the country.

Now, although I think the school should be congratulated upon its splendid achievement, from what I hear I am not sure that it is actually so different from the institution that I taught in a decade ago. The intake is pretty much unchanged – many of the children arrive not speaking English, and there are still the same sorts of disciplinary problems.

If I were teaching there today, I would worry that the pupils might become complacent. I have noticed when I have taught in schools that are way up the league tables that pupils assume, because they are in the "best" school, that somehow they will achieve results by osmosis, without having to do any real work. Staff can have a tough time trying to persuade them otherwise.

The term "league table" is in itself misleading. It suggests transparency and simplicity in the process of assessing schools – as though measuring their performance were as simple as comparing football teams in the premiership. This is far from true. Schools can be very clever at playing the statistics game; some head teachers know which qualifications will help send their school soaring up the tables.

They can insist that pupils take "modular" exams at GCSE which allow them to re-take certain sections if they fail first time round. Even the "value-added" scores can be misleading. These measure how much "value" the school has added to the child’s achievement. Every child arrives at a secondary school with a set of results from primary school, but these are notoriously inaccurate and can render the "value-added" score worse than useless.

I’ve come across many teachers who have been goggle-eyed about the scores that some of the new intake of pupils achieved in their primary school. "How on earth did she get top marks in her tests? She can’t even write a sentence," I heard one teacher groan, before adding: "The ‘value-added’ scores are going to make me look like a terrible teacher!"

I always advise parents not to take the league tables too seriously. Instead, I encourage them to read the Ofsted report. This usually, if not always, gives a fairly accurate picture of a school. Its terms are quite precise and if it has judged a school to be "very good" or "excellent", the school will be well worth considering.

The parents should visit the establishment several times and insist on looking in on lessons – even if the head teacher is reluctant. They should ask about staff-pupil ratios and pass rates in English and maths, two vital indicators of performance. These provide a much sounder basis for choosing a school than the mad lottery of league tables.

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