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League Tables

Students with their 2022 A-level results

I am not a fan of league tables. They play a crucial part in football competitions but are less relevant for schools. I have enjoyed their absence for the two years without public examinations but the government has now begun producing them again following the written papers last summer.

I don’t object to publishing the students’ public examination results: all the SGS GCSE and A-Level results are freely available, broken down by subject. I do, however, find it dehumanising that the ambitions, achievements and anecdotes of an entire year group of young people and their school are reduced to a couple of percentages. I also think that whatever measurements are held to be important will eventually distort educational priorities.

‘Steve’ from the Department for Education contacted me to express concern that SGS had scored zero on all measures. The three measures the table uses are Attainment 8, Progress 8 and the Ebacc. I explained that we choose to do IGCSE qualifications in a number of subjects such as English, Mathematics and the Sciences. The government don’t count these even though the universities and employers do accept them. This means that none of our students gain an Attainment 8 score as this is based on performance in each student’s best 8 GCSE results including English and Mathematics. We choose to do IGCSE because the Heads of Department feel that they are educationally better qualifications than the national GCSE. For example, the English Literature qualification offers a much greater range of texts from writers in English from all around the world.

Progress 8 also fails for SGS, not only because of the IGCSE issue but also because it is based on progress made since the KS2 test at the end of primary school. Many of our students did not do KS2 SATS and cannot be included. SGS looks at progress made from baseline tests taken at the start of Year 7 and again in Year 10.

That just leaves the Ebacc. Initially I thought that this was a nasty bacterial infection (think E.coli) and found myself leafing through the Department of Health’s list of notifiable diseases before erroneously googling Ebac and engaging with a manufacturer of domestic dehumidifiers (try it). Adding the extra ‘c’ allowed me to learn that the Ebacc is a measure of success in ‘academic’ subjects although, at least to me, it retains more than a whiff of Yorkshire. To achieve the Ebacc you must gain reasonable grades in GCSE Mathematics, English Language, English Literature, at least 2 sciences (which now include Computing!), History or Geography and a Foreign Language. Again, the exclusion of IGCSE excludes our students from receiving this ‘badge’ which sorely undervalues the creative subjects: Music, Art, Drama and DT are nowhere to be seen.

Returning to league tables, I am reminded of the McNamara fallacy. This concerns the over reliance upon measurable data to form judgements. The name stems from Robert McNamara, US Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War. McNamara looked solely at death rates amongst enemy combatants to judge the effectiveness of strategy and as a means of informing future decisions. He had previously been an incredibly successful Chairman of the Ford Motor Company, relying on numerical data to achieve commercial accomplishments. McNamara was less successful with military operations in South East Asia. Relying on one metric (often fabricated by his commanders), led him to believe that the USA was on the verge of victory as the situation deteriorated.

The fallacy may be summarised as:

‘The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.’
—Daniel Yankelovich “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business.” (1972)

Examination results are very important. Good grades allow students a wide range of opportunities for future study and employment. Parents choosing schools are entitled to see the results of a school before they make the commitment of sending their offspring there. Equally, there are many facets of education that cannot be simply and tidily encapsulated in a few numbers; the attempt to reduce the school experience and achievements of a diverse cohort of students to a single percentage is doomed to failure. How can the community spirit, the quality and level of involvement in extra-curricular activities or the moral sense of the students possibly be reduced to a number, however sophisticated the algorithm? Most students, parents and teachers would agree that this qualitative information is crucial for the success of the educational process; no league table can do justice to this although a visit to a school and a chat with current students quickly reveals success or failure.

Some Heads have tried to change the league tables to give a broader picture. I wonder, however, whether presenting tables showing the number of hours an average student spends on, for example, extra-curricular music can really address this problem; the chosen metric has little to say about the approach of the student, the standard reached or the joy of the experience. In addition, perhaps trying to quantify the hard to measure will cause parents to rely still more upon ‘the tables’ rather than on probing the experiences of students.

Even the employers’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), not usually known as a defender of liberal education, realises the pitfalls of an accountability system for schools which only values examination results. Employers certainly value technical knowledge and skills but also recognise the importance of ‘character’, defined by the CBI in the diagram below and fully reflected in the five SGS character traits.

None of these traits are readily quantifiable but all are crucial for professional success. A broad and balanced education which gives ample opportunities for students to participate in extra-curricular activities and in the wider life of the school community will allow young people to develop these qualities.

What is needed is not a suppression of league tables but some recognition that education is a subjective and human activity; the students and their achievements can only be adequately summarised in their stories and not in a set of numbers. Universities know this only too well and still value the school reference and the student’s personal statement alongside A-level grade predictions when considering making offers for undergraduate places. We crave the apparent certainties offered by simple, objective measures but neglect, as McNamara did, the more complex, subjective measures of success at our peril.