League tables are flawed and should be ignored

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New research by a leading educationalist warns that until flaws in schools performance measurements are solved, league tables and school report cards should be ignored.

According to Professor Gorard from the University of Birmingham, attempts to measure pupil progress while at secondary school are doomed to failure due to a lack of reliable data.

He argues that secondary schools are not largely responsible for their pupils’ ‘raw score’ examination results. Instead, pupil intakes with high levels of prior attainment at age 11 tend to produce high test scores at ages 14 and 16. Schools taking larger numbers of children who are harder to teach tend to get correspondingly lower scores.

His findings therefore suggest that it does not matter what type of school a pupil attends – academy, grammar, specialist or faith school – as the institution itself will have little impact on student attainment.

Professor Gorard said: "This is why City Technology Colleges, and fee-paying, grammar, Foundation, and faith-based schools often appear to do well in comparison to maintained inner city community schools.

"However, attempts to overcome this problem of raw scores by assessing the progress pupils make between the ages of 11 and 14 (or 16) are fatally flawed. The matched records of pupil attainment at different ages, and their background characteristics, are not good enough to conduct a meaningful value-added analysis. And the resulting value-added scores are at least as strongly related to prior attainment as the raw-scores they are supposedly replacing.

"Until these problems are solved, league tables and their derivatives such as school report cards should be ignored."

Professor Gorard went on to say: “The wider implications of these findings are also important. Since we cannot decide if any one school or type of school is more effective than any others, the purported effectiveness of schools should not be used by Ofsted as the basis for light touch inspections, nor by parents selecting new schools.

"Policy-makers should not assume that a new type of school or way of managing a school, including Academies and Trust schools, can be demonstrably more effective. In fact, we could celebrate the creation of a national system in which it does not appear to matter (for attainment purposes at least) which school a pupil attends.

"We have no reason, in terms of attainment, for dangerously clustering pupils in schools by ability, religion, ethnicity or social class. And we should begin to consider a wider range of school outcomes than merely attainment – including civic participation, social cohesion, enjoyment of learning, and aspirations. These are the kinds of softer outcomes that we can demonstrate a schooling effect on.

“Our research finds that it doesn’t make a difference which school children go to in terms of public certification, but it does make a difference who they go with and how they are treated. We are running a risk by separating pupils by kind, specialism, and aptitude.”

Prof Gorard is a former teacher in both the state and independent sectors, and worked with the Welsh government when it decided to abolish school league tables. His research is published this month in his book Equity in Education.

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