This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?

No

  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 


[1] Bowe, R; Ball, S; Gewirtz, S (1994) ‘Parental Choice’, Consumption and Social Theory: The Operation of Micro-Markets in Education’,  British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 38-52

[2] Ball, S J; Vincent ,C (1998) ‘I Heard It on the Grapevine’: ‘Hot’ Knowledge and School Choice’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 19, No. 3, pp. 377-400

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