In the big leagues

Two headteachers offer their views on exam league tables and ‘value added’

Do we place too much emphasis on league tables as a reliable measure of a school? Should we look at the ‘whole school’ view and value-adding areas, rather than judging a school solely on its exam performance? Recently, schools have begun to acknowledge that exam performance is just one part of a school’s offering and that placing undue pressure on students to achieve their A*s just adds to the range of worries young people suffer from. As a result, some have started to pull out of league tables altogether. 

We spoke to two headteachers to get their views on school ranking systems.

Jennifer Smith, Head of Brighton and Hove High School GDST

Exam league tables (at least, those that reflect value-added data) definitely have a part to play in school evaluation – but it’s a small part. In the same way as a restaurant wouldn’t be awarded a Michelin star on the basis of its desserts alone, so exam results cannot be the only measure of a school. 

Everyone knows this. Parents, teachers, school inspectors, pupils – we all know the limitations of league tables. We all know that many other indicators are just as important. Parents rarely choose schools on the basis of league table performance alone. Teachers know what real progress in education looks like: the boy who, despite significant physical disabilities, is awarded an Arkwright Scholarship; the disaffected girl who rises to the challenge of being sports captain. 

They say that, nowadays, data is the new oil 

Given, then, that schools and stakeholders know all this, why do we behave as if we don’t? Why – as we annually attend the summer shindig of league table press releases and photo opportunities – do we relentlessly give young people the message that exam results are all that matter in schools? Why do heads and governors succumb to sleepless nights around their publication? Why do league table positions have pride of place in our prospectuses and on our websites? 

The answer is that we, as educators, have allowed it to be so and, therefore, with us lies the responsibility to change things. Until schools shout as loudly and consistently about the other important aspects of education as we do about our position in the league tables then exam results will dominate the agenda. We should be insisting that, if it is a good idea to publish league tables of exam results, then it is a good idea to publish a whole raft of other information in the same way. 

They say that, nowadays, data is the new oil; as far as education is concerned it’s still pretty crude. We need to be confident about what our schools are good at and – more importantly – instill that confidence in our pupils, making clear that we value many other things besides exam results.

Corydon Lowde, Headmaster  of Box Hill School

Many educators have a distinct mistrust of school league tables, and here’s why.

Firstly, the data almost never seems to be correct. At Box Hill School, the DfE has used its own interpretation of our data to publish pass rates that are consistently about 30% lower than the reality. 

I think what most educators find frustrating about league tables is that they focus the definition of success down onto the passing of exams alone, and this distorts what it means to be successful in life. At Box Hill School, we constantly reiterate that success is derived from personal fulfilment, kindness, dedication, teamwork, tenacity and humour. The qualities of integrity, hard work and passion make one more successful – and more employable – in every area of life.  And yet league tables take no account of this. 

Box Hill School students on a school trip 

In fact, league tables don’t even show the ‘value added’ of a child academically.  We base-line test our students through Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) which give a broad statistical picture in year seven or year nine of how well a student will do at GCSE at the end of year 11. From this data we can see how that student has performed: have we, as a school, enabled that individual to achieve at a higher level than he/she statistically should have done?  The tables do not and cannot show this. 

They focus the definition of success down onto the passing of exams alone, and this distorts what it means to be successful in life

What value do we give to our children playing sport, being in a play, taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme or some local community service? What about measuring the level of self-confidence a school gives an individual? I also always emphasise to parents the values the school embraces, and promotes.  We call them our ‘Ideals’. Ideals is an acronym for: Internationalism, Democracy, Environmentalism, Adventure, Leadership, and Service. How on earth would you measure these things in a league table? 

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