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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 May, 2004, 01:29 GMT 02:29 UK
What do we know about schools?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic

Choosing the best school for your child can be an agonising process.

How do you make sense of league tables? Should you look at reports by the education watchdog Ofsted? How much weight do you give to the school's prospectus?

As a parent, I have been through it at both primary and secondary school stages. I can't say it was easy.

The questions crowd in. Is this school really good, or is it just selecting the best students? Is the school improving, coasting or about to go downhill fast? And perhaps most important, will my child fit in?

In the past, the problem was the complete absence of public information to judge school performance. Now much more is available. But how clear and helpful is it?

Dispensable?

School league tables remain controversial. At risk of over-simplification, it seems that parents love them and teachers hate them.

It also appears that while the government in England wants to keep them, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales they are dispensable.

The Scottish Executive has replaced league tables with a website which gives a wider range of information about each school.

It gives each school's examination results. It also gives inspection reports, says how many pupils are eligible for free school meals, and gives links to schools' own websites.

Northern Ireland was the first to scrap league tables, in 2001, instead requiring schools to publish their own annual results in prospectuses for parents to read.

Later that year they went in Wales too, and now the tests at 11 and 14 are about to be scrapped there.

None of these nations ever produced tables for primary schools.

In England, though, ministers insist they will continue to publish tables for both primary and secondary schools - renaming them the School and College Attainment and Achievement Tables.

They don't, of course, compile the "league" tables directly. Instead they provide the data in a form that can be turned easily into the rank ordering seen in the newspaper supplements.

Teacher with pupils
Teachers know their pupils better than any inspectors

The newspapers - and BBC News Online - publish the tables because there is a demonstrable demand for them.

But what we don't really know is exactly what parents want from these tables. Are they interested in comparisons with local schools or with national averages?

Perhaps they would learn more about the relative success of a school from comparisons with others in similar circumstances elsewhere?

Or do parents prefer to know how much progress pupils make at a school? In this case, perhaps a value-added table is the most useful?

This week, the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee urged the government to publish tables which take account of external factors, such as the poverty or family circumstances of pupils.

It cites research which shows that, if these factors are taken into account, some schools would plummet from the top 20% of the tables to the bottom 20%.

This might be fairer judgement on the achievement of the school but is it necessarily what parents want to know?

There are, of course, shortcomings with each type of league table.

Parental confusion

A table based on raw results will tell you what proportion of pupils achieved five GCSEs at grade C or above. But does this tell you more about the school's intake than its teaching quality?

A score of five A to C grades which rises over several years might indicate an improving school, but does this reflect a school policy of targeting pupils who are borderline grade C/Ds?

And has this been achieved at the expense of those who are border-line D/Es or A/Bs?

One answer might be to have several different tables, each reflecting a different measure. But trying to show all of these in a single document might simply add to parents' confusion.

Results are only part of the picture that parents are interested in. The government in England is currently developing a new approach: school profiles.

The idea is that every school will produce a report, or profile, each year containing, in one easily accessible form, most of what parents need to know to judge a school.

Ministers are canvassing views on what should be included.

The wider community

But the initial proposal suggests a combination of results, Ofsted assessments, and other information about how the school serves its pupils and the wider community.

The idea is not to replace the school prospectus but rather to produce a standardised report on each school, two to four pages maximum, which permits easy comparison between institutions.

The Department for Education and Skills' sample profile includes bar charts comparing exam or test results with both neighbouring schools and the national average. It also shows a "value-added" chart and positive and negative comments from the most recent Ofsted report.

For most parents a national league table is of limited value. What good is it knowing which are the 20 best schools in the county if none of them is within 50 miles of your home?

On the other hand, a comparison with purely local schools might be distorted by the presence of highly-selective independent or grammar schools.

So, a profile might be an alternative. Yet the question of which information to include is bound to be controversial.

The cost of educating each pupil might be included. But would it be reasonable to report the head teacher's salary, the amount raised by the parent-teacher association last year and the average length of service of staff?

Blurbs

One useful bit of information would be an honest statement of the chances of getting your child into the school and a clear exposition of the criteria for selection.

The profiles would also have to be monitored for factual accuracy and selectivity of information. Otherwise, they would be no different from the school prospectus.

We all know how book blurbs and theatre notices can, by careful editing, turn critical comments into a rave review.

In the end, of course, even the most sophisticated league table or profile is no substitute for visiting a school.

But even then it can be difficult to see past the open day veneer to the bare woodwork beneath (I always found going AWOL from the "official" tour provided a useful reality check).

Choosing a school will always have its problems. When they were first introduced, the league tables were an oasis in a desert of information.

But they can do harm by obscuring the relative performance of schools in very different circumstances and by tempting head teachers and governors into an obsession with league table position.

Things are now ripe for a more sophisticated set of data on the relative merits of schools.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.




SEE ALSO:
England to keep testing pupils
14 May 04  |  Education
MPs call for better school tables
13 May 04  |  Education
How much choice can you afford?
13 Nov 03  |  Magazine


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