This week, the Government published its secondary school performance tables and school spend data.  These performance tables include a new English Baccalaureate indicator.  This measures the percentage of pupils who have attained an A*-C at GCSE (or IGCSE) in English, Mathematics, Sciences, an Ancient or Modern Language, and History or Geography.  The statistics show that overall, in England 15.6% of pupils achieved the English Baccalaureate.

The data revealed this week also shows that 216 schools failed to meet a target of 35% of pupils achieving 5  GCSEs A*-C, including English and Mathematics.  These schools face the possibility of being taken over by a more ‘successful’ headteacher.

Newspapers have covered the release of the data. The Guardian ran with a story about the 200 plus schools failing to meet the GCSE targets, but also ran a story about the low levels of pupils achieving the English Baccalaureate. The Independent also ran a piece about pupils and schools missing targets.

My favourite headline and story came from the The Telegraph.  It read:

“GCSE league tables: private schools attack ‘half-baked’ rankings”

The article went on to describe how several leading English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow have ranked lower “than some of England’s worst-performing comprehensives”.  Representatives of private schools are, predictably, not happy.

My immediate, emotional response was:

“They should learn to take the rough with the smooth”

My nuanced, sociologically refined response is not a lot different.  Here is why:

The basis of the private schools’ objection is a technicality.  The Mathematics IGCSE which some private schools opted for, was not accredited in time to be included in this years’ rankings.  Had the figure for the pass rate of this exam been included, the rankings may have looked different.

However, their complaint about the unjust nature of this implies an expectation that school performance tables are a true and accurate representation of school performance, that they enable direct comparisons to be made between schools, and, that, until now, league tables have been accurate, fair, and representative.

This belief comes from a faith in statistics as an objective measure of an objective reality.    The problem is, the statistics from which performance tables are derived do not accurately represent reality.

The objections to league tables are well rehearsed.  Schools have different pupil populations with diverse social backgrounds.  As Bethan Marshall (2003: 35) says about the ‘failing’ Hammersmith County School which replace by the Phoenix School, with a new ‘super head’:

“To compare the results of this school with those of the London Oratory where over 90% of the boys achieved 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, as the very form of the league tables suggest we must, was and is a nonsense”

I doubt very much that Eton and Harrow will suffer now that they have decided league tables aren’t what they claim to be.

Marshall, B (2003) ‘ Including the socially excluded: League tables and Labour’s schools policy’, Critical Quarterly,  Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 29-40


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