Today the UK’s school league tables are out. From the moment the national media hit “print”, the panic set in, with parents across the country frantically combing through the data to discern if their school came out as good or bad.
When confronted with this palpable sense of panic, I realised that I didn’t care. I thought, why does it matter where we sit? And I’m really not being facetious when I say this. I’m not a “slummy mummy” who doesn’t give a toss, I’m an engaged parent with a happy child who has good friends and seems to be doing well in reading and writing. But his school has just been rated as middling in the league tables, and doesn’t compare brilliantly against its local counterparts. But I am left feeling “so what?”
It is a brilliant school. It values creativity, it is ethnically and socio-economically diverse (like the real world is), it encourages outdoor play, it deploys discipline fairly, it works with local parents and appreciates their input – these are the metrics that matter to me, but don’t make their way onto the league table. So as per usual, I shall defer to a leading academic to back up my hunch that the kids at my school are alright…
This film is of Sue Palmer, a nationally respected authority on literacy teaching, and author of a great book called Toxic Childhood. In this film she outlines the top 5 tips for teachers to help them build emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy children (who, in time, will become emotionally intelligent, resilient and happy adults). Palmer is a fierce critic of League tables, particularly for primary schools. In 2008 she wrote in The Guardian:
“As long as league tables exist, in a risk averse society [like the UK] most people daren’t ignore them. Primary schools at the top of the league (which, by a strange coincidence, tend to be in the wealthiest areas) have a reputation to maintain; those at the bottom have to try to claw a little higher. The status of all interested adults (teachers, governors, parents) depends on how their Year Sixes perform in national tests… So from four years of age, our children now live in the shadow of SATs… The curriculum is dominated by the core subjects of English, Maths and Science… Not surprisingly, this regime leaves far less time for creative but unquantifiable experiences, like art, drama and music, which through the millennia have nurtured children’s imaginations and contributed incalculably to their emotional and social development.
Less time also for the active, hands-on learning children need if they’re genuinely to understand the concepts underpinning the tests. Last year researchers found that the conceptual understanding of today’s 11-year-olds lags two to three years behind their counterparts in 1990. While performance on pencil-and-paper tests has soared over this period, children are apparently less likely to understand the principles they’ve been trained to tick boxes about… Not surprisingly, the children trailing furthest behind are still those from the disadvantaged homes – statisticians last year found a direct correlation between league table position and postcode. ’.
So does anyone really benefit from league tables? Or do they just serve to make parents and teachers either feel a surge of panic or satisfying wave of smugness – both of which could ultimately lead to bad decision making that is not in the interests of the school. League tables are a blunt instrument, and the devil is always in the detail. Data is meaningless without context. My advice to parents is to look at the data, but then reconcile it against their own experience and feelings.
As with everything in life, it is unwise to make a decision on data alone.