Without league tables, pupil performance improvement is almost impossible to gauge

With the publication of the latest league tables, as usual, the NUT have welcomed impressive results, while the right-wing press bemoan "falling standards".

The publication of GCSE results yesterday sparked our annual debate about the value of league tables. On the one hand the NUT welcomed impressive results whilst at the same time decrying the manner of their publication. On the other hand the right wing press used the tables to diminish the achievements of teachers and pupils, ignoring figures which show improvements.

Both responses miss the mark.

Wide dissemination of testing results is crucial for transparency and accountability. All the evidence shows that without pupil level data being available to teachers, head teachers and administrators, performance improvement is almost impossible.

And so if it is right that this data be available to educators, it would be difficult to argue that it shouldn’t be available to parents too, who after all have a significant impact on pupil progress. Beyond that, how the press put the data into tables is something we can’t control.

Systems that are not accountable for results can tolerate mass failure. In our case that would disproportionately affect poorer children who are more likely to be let down by schools.

What’s more, the fact that improvements reported yesterday were particularly concentrated in National Challenge Schools – where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils get 5 GCSEs including English and Maths – shows the value of publishing performance data to tackle failure.

Challenge schools were named (and ‘shamed’) in 2008. But now with a combination of external scrutiny and support, their number has been nearly halved to the lowest ever level (247).

However, there are of course legitimate criticisms of the league tables. If schools are focusing all their attention on getting kids over a somewhat arbitrary benchmark in order to look good, that would mean high-fliers and those who are really struggling might get left behind.

This concern has been partly assuaged this year with the introduction of a progress measure: this tells us how many pupils progressed at least two levels from the start of secondary school. This is welcome because it will encourage schools to be just as concerned with moving a pupil from an F to a D as an A to an A*.

And if this becomes a measure that is widely used, it will highlight the schools that are adding the most value, as opposed to those that are relying on an already highly achieving intake. It will also help teachers and schools provide a more individual offer for individual children.

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