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School league tables were introduced in 1992 and immediately they were controversial. School league tables are published in England every winter. In addition, every three years the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) examines the worldwide results for 15 and 16 year olds’ educational performance. This means that the media has periods of intense interest in school league tables, around the times they are published, coupled with little or no reference to them at any other time of the year. In contrast, there seems to be consistent interest from academia, with research exploring primarily their effectiveness and validity, but also the effect of assessment on pupils and the impact of parental choice.
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This is clearly a complex educational issue and it cannot be focused on without consideration of a number of other equally complex issues. These include: parental choice of schools, meritocracy, state-funded versus independent schools, and compensatory education. Beyond educational issues, there are also intrinsic links with socio-economic factors, such as employment opportunities, gross domestic product (GDP) and location of the school. In this essay, I will outline the history of school league tables and their impact on educational policy. I will then outline the main areas of controversy related to school league tables and explore the possibilities for their future direction.
The History of School League Tables
School league tables were first introduced in 1992 by the Conservative Government. This was one of the first initiatives from John Major after he replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990. Thatcher had been in power for more than a decade and in this time the Conservatives made radical changes to the British education system, with the most notable change being the Education Reform Act (1988). This is arguably the most significant education legislation in the UK since the Education Act (1944). So significant was the Education Reform Act that it formed the basis of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) in the USA.
The Education Reform Act introduced the National Curriculum, a government-approved scheme of work for pupils from 5 to 16 years of age, which saw a dramatic change from teachers to central government deciding what would be taught. It also introduced national tests for 7, 11 and 14 year olds. It was these tests which facilitated the introduction of school league tables and parental choice for schools. The introduction of the National Curriculum occurred at a time of severe recession in the UK and enabling parents to select their children’s school in some ways created the illusion of more choice at a time when options in other areas (such as unemployment) were very limited.
School league tables were originally introduced to inform parents about the performance of local schools and to set targets for schools as they taught the new curriculum. In 1997, these were modified to incorporate the concept of ‘improvement’, showing how much progress had occurred rather than focusing on final grades. This was known as the ‘value-added’ approach. The strengths and weaknesses of this are explored below.
In 2000, PISA was first carried out, examining the academic performance of 15 and 16 year olds from around the world. PISA explores competency in science, mathematics and reading. The first report was published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in November 2001 and aimed to encourage educators and policy makers to focus on improving levels of education. The assessment is repeated every three years, with a shift in focus each time between the three core competency areas. 45 countries participated in the 2000 study, with 74 countries participating in the last assessment.
PISA is viewed as a reliable measure of academic performance, partly because of its sheer scope and scale. It is also beneficial for the participating countries, as it enables them to monitor their own progress longitudinally. All participating countries are asked to propose questions for the assessment and the final content is then analysed, monitored and adjusted to eliminate cultural bias. In 2000, when reading was the main focus, the UK ranked 7th in the assessment. In 2009, when reading was again the main focus, the UK ranked 25th.
School league tables in Wales
On 6th May 1997, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister and ‘New Labour’ came into power. One of the first actions of the new Prime Minister was to devolve power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) was established in 1999. The newly formed Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) within WAG abolished secondary school league tables in Wales in 2001. Scotland and Northern Ireland did the same. This saw the beginning of a divergence in education between England and Wales.
The national press reported on this decision and reflected on the possible implications for England. In the Independent, Sarah Cassidy uses the headline “Wales rids its schools of league tables”. The use of this verb emphasises the idea that they are detrimental to Wales and only have a negative impact. She recognises that there will now be “pressure” on England to follow suit. She explains how Welsh teachers “welcomed” the ban and how the Assembly has been “congratulated”. She creates a sense of panic among the educators in England by stating that Welsh teaching unions are warning that teachers will “desert” England in search of jobs in league table-free Wales. Overall the article celebrates the decision and does not consider any possible negative impacts of this decision.
This view is reflected in an article in The Telegraph, reported by Liz Lightfoot. Lightfoot presents the Welsh Assembly Government as progressive in their plan to develop a value-added approach which would enable schools to contextualise their results. Lightfoot also focuses on WAG labelling the league tables as “bureaucratic” and “unfair” without further comment. This implies that she agrees. She reiterates the sentiment of Cassidy in the Independent article and claims that there will be a “flood” of English teachers seeking jobs in Wales. Again, there is no consideration here of any possible negative consequences for Wales with the abolition of these tables.
Under Schedule 5 of the Government of Wales Act (2006), the Welsh Assembly Government moved away from the National Curriculum and developed A Revised Curriculum for Wales. This new curriculum was implemented Wales-wide in 2008 for pupils aged 3 to 19 years of age. This saw a major departure from the traditional National Curriculum. This progressive curriculum for Wales focuses less on didactic, teacher-centred learning and instead emphasises the role of the child as the learner and encourages development through exploration, investigation and independent play.
The controversies surrounding school league tables
There are three main controversies linked with school league tables.
What is the impact of publishing school league tables?
Perhaps a better measure for schools would be a way of assessing pupils’ potential
Is there a way of measuring pupils’ potential against their current attainment?
Are school league tables an accurate measure of performance?
This is closely linked to the above controversy. However, this receives more focus from academia than the media, as it examines the content validity of performance tables and the value-added measure, with researchers particularly focusing on whether the value-added measure does actually add any value. Taylor and Ngoc-Nguyen (2006), for example, found that the value-added measure was unreliable as an indicator of a school’s performance. They argue that there are too many confounding variables outside the school’s control that can affect their final ranking. These include the number of authorised and unauthorised pupil absences, the percentage of pupils receiving free school meals, the geographical location of the school, and percentage of pupils from ethnic minorities. They also argue that the value-added measure should only be used a tool for explaining differences between schools and should not be used as a key indicator of the school’s success, because of these confounding variables.
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This sentiment is supported by Gorard (2008) who also investigated the effectiveness of the value-added measure. Gorard concluded that the value-added measure should only be used as a tool for research. It has not yet been tested enough for it to be published as a measure of schools’ success and any application of value-added measures would only be misleading to educators and parents.
Mathematical assessments of the value-added measure have also been carried out. Hoyle and Robinson (2002) produced a mathematical model to assess the validity of the value-added measure in the absence of a reliable control group. They compared the effectiveness of both raw performance scores and value-added scores in assessing the performance of schools against scores derived from interviewing teachers. They found that there was little or no difference between the accuracy of the two sets of scores, indicating that the value-added measure does not actually add value to the performance scores. Hoyle and Robinson argue that a new method for compiling the results is needed and recommend a longitudinal approach, whereby scores are obtained at set points during the academic year and then averaged. They believe this will eliminate the effect of confounding variables, such as teachers devoting more attention to those pupils lying on the borderline between grades, and socio-economic factors.
Van de Grift (2009) examined the ability of the value-added measure to predict school performance. He found that the value-added measure was significantly affected by missing data, generated by pupils changing schools or pupil absenteeism during the tests. He argues that even by adjusting the scores to take into account gender, ethnicity, age, intelligence and socioeconomic factors, the value-added measure is only reliable when used for schools with high raw scores.
Has the abolition of school league tables in Wales affected performance?
The media’s attention was drawn to school league tables in Wales in November and December 2010, with the publication of two pieces of research: research carried out by Bristol University and the PISA report. There is little media attention on these reports from national newspapers, in contrast to extensive coverage in Welsh newspapers.
In his article about the Bristol University research, Gareth Edwards, writing for the Western Mail uses the shock headline “School league tables abolishment hitting grades in Wales”. This would immediately cause concern among the readers, as it is presented as fact. However, it is only on analysing the main article that this conclusion is based on one arguably flawed study. Evans devotes the first half of the article to presenting the findings of the study accompanied by quotes from experts in the field of education. He uses emotive language to persuade the reader that the abolition of league tables has been detrimental to Welsh pupils; “The Assembly Government yesterday stood by its decision to scrap school league tables after figures revealed results in Wales had suffered since they were abolished”. This implies that even though the lack of league tables is damaging to Wales, WAG are stubbornly continuing without them. The remainder of the article presents a defence of the decision to abolish league tables. However, this defence is presented as a series of excuses rather than plausible arguments.
From reading the article, it is clear that there are serious methodological issues with the report. These are only briefly mentioned in the article. The reporter fails to address the flaw within the study that it compares educational performance in England with that in Wales. A more accurate view of performance in Wales would be to compare before and after the league tables were abolished. Caution is needed when analysing the results as there are significant differences between the two countries. Wales has a population of less than one-tenth that of England. Wales is also recognised as being significantly poorer than England, which, as already discussed, can have a significant impact on schools’ performance. The European Social Fund has classified 18 of the 22 counties in Wales as ‘convergence areas’. This means that they have a gross domestic product of less than 75% of the European Union’s 25 countries. In contrast, only one county in England (Cornwall) is classified as a convergence area.
The article refers to the study utilising this natural experiment to compare “the impact of removing [school league tables] on two near-identical education systems”. Chris Keates, the general secretary of NASUWT, states, “It is inaccurateâ€¦that the curricula in place during the research period in England and Wales were the same. They are not.” The positioning of this statement towards the end of the article creates the impression that Keates is simply making excuses to justify the abolition of school league tables.
Gareth Evans again reported when the PISA report was published. This was a wholly more optimistic and positive article than the previous one, and while he acknowledges that “there is still much to do” in the headline, he opens with “Much to be proud of in Welsh education”. The whole article seeks to reassure and support educators in Wales. It begins by acknowledging that the PISA report was “a wake up call to Wales” and describes the results as “worrying” and teachers as “anxious”. This is because according to the report Wales is performing the worst in the UK and very poorly in comparison to the rest of Europe. However, the reader is immediately reassured as Evans warns that the “results must be taken in context”. Throughout the article, he states that we should “recognise efforts” and “applaud the initiative” that have already occurred in Welsh education.
The consistent use of “we” to refer to educators makes the reader instantly sympathise with the emotive language in the article. The reader feels proud when Evans says we should and feels frustrated with the financial issues blocking further improvements, again when Evans says we should. This creates the impression that this is an issue that affects the whole of Wales and not just pupils and their parents, and educators. He ends with a warning that we should not “get dragged down into despondency and recrimination” and that we should remain positive and focus on the future of education in Wales. This is an interesting spin on what could otherwise be perceived as a very negative outcome for the country. It is interesting to note that at no point in the article is the absence of school league tables blamed for this poor result.
It is clear that the media prefers to present one-sided arguments in relation to issues relating to league tables. There is a surprising agreement between reporters on the same issue and very often consideration of the alternative viewpoint is almost entirely omitted. Reporters seem to have an extreme and reactionary approach to school league tables. Their abolition in Wales was greeted with unanimous approval, in contrast to the unanimous criticism this decision received on the publication of the Bristol University research. Here is where academics have some responsibility in ensuring alternative views are considered and thus far this seems to have been achieved. However, as well as being aware of bias in the media, parents and educators should be aware of methodological failures of some studies, such as the Bristol University research.
In terms of the future direction of league tables, the Government is in consultation on the development of the a School Report Card. It is their intention that this will draw on the strengths of league tables, such as indicating to schools their areas for improvement, while eliminating many of the issues they raise. However, it is should be noted that even the value-added measures do not capture all of the factors that could influence a parent’s school choice. Excluded from value-added measures are the breadth of extra-curricula activities, the level of pastoral care, the quality of careers advice, the provision for personal and social development, the provision for spiritual and religious needs, and, perhaps most importantly for parents, there is no indicator about how happy their child would be at that school.
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