Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

The end of league tables?

By Mike Baker

Primary classroom
Will the arrival of the school report cards end league tables?
Could we be on the verge of finding an answer to the troublesome influence of school league tables?

This week brought the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for those who believe the high-stakes nature of the national tests and exams are distorting teaching and the curriculum.

It came with publication of the government's proposals for school "report cards". These will summarise each school's performance across a whole range of measures, not test scores alone. The hope is that they will replace the accountability role of league tables.

In other words, if the new report cards become the accepted consumer guide to schools the current massive importance of exam-based league tables could be greatly reduced.

This in turn would remove the high stakes nature of testing, which encourages schools both to teach to the test and to narrow their curriculum and teaching to focus on key benchmarks of exam performance.

Public image

At present, it is hard to blame primary schools for devoting so much time to preparation for the national curriculum tests. A good performance in the narrow areas of English and maths tested by the Sats is usually enough to keep all criticism, and Ofsted, at bay.

Conversely, no matter how much other good work a school is doing, if the Sats results are poor, trouble will follow. It is a simple matter of self-preservation for many teachers and head teachers.

The same is true at secondary schools, where there is disproportionate pressure to get borderline pupils across the C grade threshold.

Of course, many have argued that there is a simple solution: scrap the tests or stop publishing league tables.

But that won't wash. Parents and the media have grown used to the consumer value of test results and league tables. Newspaper circulation spikes when the school table supplements are published. The same is true for the number of hits on this website.

The genie of publishing results cannot be put back into the bottle. The only answer is to give better quality information. And that is what the report cards aim to do.

So, although the government has insisted that the national tests at age 11 will remain, there is now a prospect that they could cease to dominate the top end of primary school.

'Elephant in the room'

Because it is not testing itself that is the problem. We need to know how children are doing. The real problem comes with the high stakes nature of tests used as the key accountability measure of schools.

Ministers now believe that if they can find a simple, single score to represent much wider aspects of school performance, then it will be possible to remove the league table significance of Sats and GCSEs.

The clue is buried away at paragraph 39 of the government's consultation document on report cards. It says that if these do indeed become the new means for judging schools' overall performance, then the current league tables "will not be used for school accountability, and we will review their shape, content and accessibility".

This is one of the reasons why the Key Stage 2 tests were not part of the remit for this week's other big report, Sir Jim Rose's interim review of the primary curriculum.

Sir Jim has described the Sats as the "elephant in the room" and has acknowledged that they have a big effect on teaching and the curriculum. The sort of flexibility and breadth he has recommended will be hard to deliver in any school that is constantly looking over its shoulder at its Sats results.

So, if report cards are in place - and league tables effectively abolished - by the time the new primary curriculum is due to start in 2011, we could see a revolution in schools.

The same is true at secondary level where, of course, the Sats have already been scrapped and where report cards could replace the preoccupation with the 5 A*-Cs benchmark.

Consumer friendly

All of this, though, will depend on finding a report card measure that is simple and easy for parents and the media to use and yet which also permits a more sophisticated measure of a school's overall performance.

That is a big task. The government is realistic, though, to say that the report card should be short, easy to read, updated annually, and should have a single overall score.

It has been suggested the latter might be a "traffic light symbol" or a grade from A to F. Of the two, the latter seems preferable, since the former would not allow sufficient differentiation between schools and would, I suspect, mean the media would stick with published league tables.

Some teachers' leaders have rejected the idea that any single score can be used to measure schools. But some compromise is needed here. If the report card is too complex it will fail to replace the even blunter measure of league tables.

And, providing the report cards use a sufficiently broad range of measures from which to aggregate the overall score, it will be a more meaningful measure of what a school does for its pupils.

Of course, the report card will be high stakes. It will, no doubt, become critical to get a certain level. But at least that level can take into account factors such as pupils' and parents' views, success in narrowing the achievement gap, the progress made by students, and other broader outcomes for pupils.

The big prize is that this would remove the current exaggerated importance of getting a few key students across somewhat randomly selected thresholds within a narrow set of tests and exams.

That, surely, is a prize many will think worth going for.

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