League tables are big but not clever

There are certain words that a young child growing up shouldn’t have to hear on a regular basis. The usual run of profanity goes without saying, but I would add to the list any and all phrases and acronyms relating to education: LEA, schools effectiveness, value added, pyramid schemes…

I had the unfortunate insight into the seamy world of ‘education’ as a child, being the son of two teachers whose combined years in the industry amount to roughly half a century. Despite having resigned myself long ago to eternally uninteresting dinnertime conversation, this proximity to the underworld of ‘education’ has afforded me an appreciation of what is wrong in the current system. I’ve always been fairly scathing of the whole damned process, but the latest league table findings have broken the proverbial camel’s back. The Government really ought to go back to school. Fast.

This most recent report suggests that almost a fifth of England’s state secondary schools don’t meet the Government’s targets for GCSE attainment. The Government’s “floor target” for schools’ GCSE attainment is thirty per cent of pupils getting their five A* to C grades, including maths and english. That means that nearly twenty per cent of schools fail their students to the gross extent that at least seventy per cent will not get five passes at GCSE. That’s tragic. The report shames Parklands High School as being the worst, with only one per cent of its GCSE students getting the basic five.

Evidently, a lot of things aren’t right with the education system. Yet the government steadfastly refuses to listen to teachers, whom you’d think might be able to offer the odd pointer or two. I should know; my parents, as a reliable mouthpiece for the teaching profession, used to vent their spleen over ‘education’ long after people had stopped listening, and on occasions even after they’d left the room.

Firstly, the revolving door position of Schools Minister means that education never achieves a cohesive policy or funding, much like our Union sabbatical positions. Each new minister arrives, eager to sound innovative and harbouring a great desire to ‘shake things up’. He or she proceeds with the shaking, and when everything settles, certain support schemes find out they’re being wrapped up, just as they’re starting to make some progress. Cabinet lifespan dictates the health of education.

Once again, boys are doing worse than girls, even though only 51.2 per cent of girls achieve five A* to C grades. Why is it so low? Either around half the country’s sixteen year olds are irrevocably lazy and ignorant, or perhaps more likely, the rigid implementation of the national curriculum and hugely imbalanced quality of schools is failing them. It’s all very well to push for training and apprenticeships instead of sixth form or college, but surely that’s a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? What is it about our society that finds it acceptable for boys to perform worse at nearly every level? Or is that the reason in itself? Expectation breeds results. When this is used to explain the even worse national average for black boys –twenty seven per cent in 2005-, then a worrying indication of latent racism is laced in to the mix as well.

But this isn’t all. If I take the example of Dorset’s schools –I am, as it happens, from Dorset- a troubling phenomenon emerges. For the sake of making this all sound a lot more scientific I shall call it a ‘Black Hole Effect’. In the latest Ofsted report, The Thomas Hardye School gained the highest possible grade in almost all aspects of assessment. The school is now a Science College, Humanities College, and Educational Needs Specialist. There are so many logos on its letterhead that ideally they’d need two pages to display them all. The teaching is good, the facilities are cutting edge, and the funding seemingly limitless. For those who are lucky enough to be within the catchment area this is wonderful. Unfortunately, here is where the Black Hole Effect comes into it.

The other secondary comprehensives in the area fall well short of the standards maintained at Thomas Hardye’s. Ofsted reflects this, but more importantly, so too do league tables. Thomas Hardye’s sixth form currently stands at around nine hundred students and is ever increasing. All other local colleges and sixth forms are well short of this. Because Thomas Hardye’s has all the badges, all the good staff, and all the funding and facilities, there is no incentive for parents to send their children to the other schools in the area, which will therefore lose out on the high achieving students, get worse average results, less funding, less incentive for new teachers to want to apply there, lower league table rankings, and diminishing year group sizes. All the while, Thomas Hardye School expands, absorbing more and more into its sixth form, where it can impose stringent requirements for admission, and remove or deny any student who does not meet these requirements. Hence it maintains a good league table ranking, enhances its reputation, attracts better staff and students, funding etc, and thus the Black Hole Effect continues. There is an undoubtable link between areas of social deprivation and worse education. House prices are likely to be higher within the catchment of a good school.

Our first step should be the abolition of league tables, which in part create the problem they purport to merely reflect. With a concept like education, it should be wholly unacceptable to us that geography should determine its quality. We can’t fix everything with one stroke, but if we listen to the advice of those within education, this is one area that will have significant impact over time.

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