The Lie of the League Table
At their best, school league tables offer a snapshot of academic performance; at their worst, they can mislead parents. Peter Green, Headmaster of Ardingly College, explains why he is a league table sceptic.
The other day, I was showing some prospective parents round Ardingly College. That is hardly unusual, of course, but in this case the parents were prospective in every sense of the word; their first child was not yet born and here they were, considering schools and even showing a keen interest in far-off sixth-form choices.
That sort of planning is far more common in parts of London, but in Sussex it is still relatively rare. However, I and my Nursery, Pre-Prep and Prep School staff have been seeing an increase in the number of parents who want to leave London. They worry about the battle for independent school places they face there; they are concerned about the pressures put on children there; about their exposure to all that makes life in a big city; and instead they want to bring up their children in a more rural environment that is still close enough for one or other parent to commute. The visits to schools like mine are part of an overall lifestyle choice for these families - and obviously we are delighted to welcome them.
I'm a Headmaster - and I am also a parent. I know about the anguish involved in making sure you find the right school for your child. You depend on word of mouth and reputation; you read good schools guides, devour prospectuses, go to open days and, yes, you turn to newspaper league tables. As a result you form an impression of a place so you can make comparisons with other schools and eventually a choice that you don't regret.
I do not suggest that parents are confused by league tables. I maintain that league tables send parents confusing messages. Far from offering us transparency the current system of tables is fundamentally flawed with so much scope for conflicting interpretation that it is rendered opaque. In his autobiography, Mark Twain quoted Disraeli as saying there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. It is probably too harsh to brand league tables outright as lies, but they are statistics - and should be treated as such.
In 2008 my school was placed 7th in the UK in The Independent newspaper, who used UCAS points per candidate; we were 193rd in The Daily Telegraph; while in The Times we were in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Only Table - unfortunate, since half our Sixth Form study for A Levels. We were not in The Financial Times' schools table at all because we were wrongly listed as a 'league table rebel'. And what about in 2009? I wrote to The Times before publication of their table last summer to ask whether my school would be in the IB group, the A Level group or in a separate section for schools like ours that do IB and A Level. In the end, we were not included anywhere. It was obviously too difficult for them to interpret the data effectively and it seems they gave up. Where's the transparency when different tables place you in different positions - and some exclude you altogether?
Our own research suggests that around half of our parents think league table position is important, but an overwhelming 78% place far more weight on a school's values and its culture. In the last two years, we have managed to secure nearly 80% A and B grades at A Level/IB equivalent. By anybody's reckoning these results are impressive. Yet league tables tell you nothing about ethos; nothing about a school's location or place in the community; its social mix. The same parents who choose a school for its underlying values also tell me that they find it difficult to interpret performance tables. These are intelligent, high-powered and astute parents and, understandably, they ask how they can possibly compare a school which offers only A Levels with one that offers the IB - or the IB and A Levels? Isn't there a world of difference between a qualification such as the IB, which is not at the mercy of government diktats and which is globally recognised, and A Levels, which in my opinion have clearly been subject to relentless domestic political tweaking and grade inflation?
My concern is that, like all statistics, league tables are open to misinterpretation - and even to manipulation. To boast to parents, as some Heads do, that their school is 'better' or even 'best' because it is high in the league table is simply wrong; it will be better at some things, but other schools lower down the table will also be better or best at some things, having, for example, worked miracles by giving a child the confidence he or she needed.
How can you compare two schools where one requires the equivalent of 6 A grades to enter the Sixth Form, with one requiring 6 Bs? Perhaps this information, plus entrance requirements at 11+ and 13+, could be added to the tables to allow parents to interpret the information and make more of an informed choice. League tables fail to tell us which schools stop their borderline students taking subjects; tables do not outline which schools include 'easier' subjects in the curriculum to boost results. Nor, indeed, do the tables show in which subjects students achieved their grades. I would ask whether you consider an A in Physics to be the academic equivalent of an A in Media Studies? The league tables give no indication of the number of Oxbridge interviews and places gained.
Even if I concede that a league table offers a snapshot of each school's academic performance, it gives you no inkling about the standard of music, drama, art or the fact that a school has its own state-of-the-art observatory, as Ardingly does. Neither do tables inform you about the number of enrichment activities such as a law society and an incredible programme of visiting lecturers, let alone that there is an after school-scuba diving activity and a bee-keeping club. A league table does not even tell you a school's size. It is always important for parents to consider school size: if there are about 800 pupils, for example, and yet only four senior rugby or hockey teams playing each Saturday, you have to ask yourself whether or not your son or daughter is going to have the same opportunities in the large school as he or she might in a smaller school.
We all know, sadly, that the A Level gold standard is tarnished, but to suggest, as I once read somewhere, that the IB qualification is a faddish alternative, beggars belief. Unlike A Levels, the standards of assessing achievement have been consistent since the IB's beginnings in Geneva 40 years ago. Outstanding independent schools such as Sevenoaks, Malvern, Wellington, Fettes and St Leonards have adopted the IB because of what they see as its platinum standard. And this does not apply only to private schools. Half of the new IB schools coming on stream in the UK are in the state sector. They have seen how IB students are welcomed with open arms at top universities in the UK and around the world because of the IB course they have undertaken. In fact, the IB is a real draw for UK teachers and parents who are attracted not only to its rigour, breadth and holistic view of the development of the child, but also its unifying philosophy. As one of the IB founding fathers, Kurt Hahn, said: 'We may not be able to change the world, but we can at least produce young people who want to.' League tables tell you nothing of all that.
At GCSE too, there is obfuscation. We offer the international iGCSEs in some subjects, and we know that, when the tables are published, we will be down in comparison with schools that do not teach the iGCSE because, even though considered more academically rigorous, iGCSEs are not recognised by the Government. Perhaps Dr John Rae, the former Headmaster of Westminster, had a point when he wrote in the 1980s: 'Specialisation at 16 is deeply rooted in the English tradition of education... What we need in this country is a broad curriculum for the 14-18 age group that contains compulsory elements, such as Science, Mathematics and a foreign language, and a law forbidding full-time employment under the age of 18. No government has grasped the significance of this essential weakness in our educational system. I think the reason is that a confusion exists about educational standards; we dare not abolish A Levels because we fear that it will lead to a fall in standards, but we are confusing high standards with specialisation; anyone can achieve a higher standard if he specialises in three subjects instead of six.'
I am not arguing here for the abolition of specialisation; some students' way of learning is more suited to it and at my school we offer our Sixth Form the choice between A Levels and the IB. However, I do think that the national post-16 curriculum is far too narrow and the IB is a platinum standard that the compilers of league tables and those who advocate 'Top of the Pops'-type school charts should take on board.
Finally, let me clarify that being a league table sceptic does not mean that I am against the national curriculum, or against a more demanding emphasis on standards. Far from it: all good schools integrate that kind of approach. I am against the cult of the league table and those schools who see them as the apex of the pyramid of their educational philosophy and marketing. My school will not be part of that cult.