Sunday, May 23, 2010

Liberal Democrats and school league tables

I have never been a great fan of school league tables. Given that parents already have a pretty shrewd idea of which are the best local schools, they have struck me as an expensive way of telling us what we already know.

So I was happy when Liberal Democrat policy was to abolish league tables - even though we knew that someone like the Daily Telegraph would produce them anyway. And I am not that excited to read this in today's Observer:

A radical overhaul of school league tables is being planned by the coalition government, it has emerged. One suggestion being considered is a shift to a "like-versus-like" system, in which schools in the poorest parts of the country will only be compared to those facing similarly difficult situations.

Sources say that Tories are open to the Liberal Democrat idea, which Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems and the deputy prime minister, has said would provide a more "honest picture" of how well schools are performing. The new system could also pick out schools in middle-class areas that are thought to be coasting.

First a minor point: maybe some middle-class parents or children want schools that are coasting. Different children have different needs, and in the private sector not every school is an examination mill. And nor should they be.

More importantly, this enthusiasm for league tables seems to me to appeal to some of the less attractive characteristics of both right and left.

On the right, it plays to the idea that both pupils in teachers in the state sector are lazy and need to be made to work harder.

And on the left, it plays to the warped logic that runs something like this:

All people who work in the public sector are motivated high ideals.

Therefore they must be doing good work.

Therefore if league tables fail to show that good work, it is because not enough things are being measured.

Therefore we need more detailed league tables.

I am also uneasy at the implied economic determinism here - the idea that you should only compare schools in poor areas with schools in other poor areas because you cannot expect too much of them.

At its works this sort of thinking has given Marxists a sort of ideological vested interest in poor children doing badly. It is not a road that Liberal should go down.

So the more authoritarian instincts of the Tories are finding common cause with the more Labourite instincts of the Liberal Democrats. Why am I not surprised?


S McG said...

What a load of nonsense. If we are in favour of Freedom of Information and transparency in the public sector then schools should have to release exam results, one of the most important measures (not the only one) of how well they are doing.
Given that the papers will inevitably produce league tables.
Or do you want to go back to the days when schools could keep results secret?

Anonymous said...

In Wales the school reports are written by Estyn.

Your point about parents having a rough idea what the schools are like in their area is quite true. Unfortunately probably the worst School in Bridgend County has pretty much the same number of points as the Best school in Bridgend County.

Estyn, yet another Welsh Assembly Government Quango.

Unknown said...

@SMcG - Suppose that there were a public outcry, especially from the media, to release the figures for the number of medical personnel who are graduates of imperial in each hospital because people had gotten it into their heads that the more doctors there are from imperial the better care a hospital can provide. Suppose you know that this is not only the case but there are plenty of hospitals with a low 'imperial score' who nonetheless offer better (or different) medical care than those with a high 'imperial score'. Could you not forsee that releasing the imperial scores would lead to too much focus upon an arbitrary characteristic and, therefore, a distraction from what the concern is supposed to be in patient choice; which hospitals offer better treatment. You refuse to release the imperial scores and insist that if people wish to evaluate the hospitals comparatively they must read the detailed reports written by inspectors.

@Jonathan - I think you've considerably exaggerated here; "And on the left, it plays to the warped logic that runs something like this [...] Therefore they must be doing good work. Therefore if league tables fail to show that good work, it is because not enough things are being measured." (a) no one thinks that way, the search for new statistics is more likely a cover-my-ass maneuver, (b) at least in the case of crime and health stats-mongering it was the Conservatives under Major who made the first great strides in the direction of the glorious stats-bureaus we have today, albeit to provide them with statistics with which to rebuff assaults from Labour but nonetheless this isn't a problem of the 'left' or even necessarily 'centralists'. Even those who seem themselves as being opposed to the state can easily fall into the trap of setting up new monitoring agencies to determine whether something is being done. The problem is a lack of willingness to stand up to public demand for quantifiable (albeit easy enough to fix) figures as to how much better or worse things are getting. But it's not hard to see what 'teaching targets' has done to the education system at all levels; drowning teachers in paperwork and sapping both their time to prepare (or even unwind) and their morale.

Just a passing anecdote; my brother works for a company which has one client, the regional policy authority. He receives calls from policy officers and turns them into reports on crimes. Not crime reports; those have to be written by officers for them to be admissible in court. No, he creates reports which serve only one purpose; to generate statistics. And even then the statistics they generate are no good. The police and the admin folk were told a few years back, for example, to log officers giving cautions to people e.g. for littering as first an unsolved crime and then a few moments later as a solved crime. The solved crime figures then go up and it looks as if detective work is suddenly on the rise. Don't get me wrong, I like my brother being gainfully employed but... what does the expression say about a job that's not worth doing?

dreamingspire said...

Jonathan, I think that this piece is a bit tongue in cheek..

Is there some chance that we will again become capable of not only valuing competence but also striving to build more of it?

Matthew Huntbach said...

The league tables used for universities are unofficial, compiled by newspapers not government. Nevertheless, they are the main factor in student choice of university. I can confirm that from the many years I spent as my university department's admissions tutor. It almost did not matter what you did, how good your facilities were, how good or relevant your teaching was, if an applicant got an offer from another university higher up the league table, the applicant would go there 90% of the time. That's not an exaggeration - that 90% is based on my analysis of years of data. Although university departments are quite autonomous so it's often the case that the Department of X in University A is better than the Department of X in University B, but the Department of Y in University B is better than the Department of Y in University A, applicants very rarely looked down as far as individual department ratings. If University X is above University Y on the newspaper league table, they'll go to X - 90% of the time.

The newspaper league tables combine several factors. A minor change in the calculation can mean a university leaping up or down many places. Given that one factor is the number of 1st upper second awarded, it means there is an enormous incentive to dumb down by awarding more of them. That is just what has happened since league table mania took over in university choice. But the main factor is the ratings is research record - it is not only a big direct factor, but indirectly it influences other factors. For example, if university A is research oriented, so its staff spend half their time doing grant-funded research work, while university B is teaching oriented so its staff spend all their time teaching, university A will appear to have a staff-student weighting twice as good as university B, even though the reality is that even if staff at A take their teaching seriously, students at A will get the same staff contact as students at B. But the league tables count A as twice as good as B on teaching due to this. As a consequence, all universities are pushing to increase their research funding even if the cost of this is to minimise effort put into teaching - as it usually is.