Gerald Holtham says the Welsh Government should publish a value-added league table of school results
Pay attention next time someone uses the word ‘simplistic’. Roughly nine times out of ten when applied to an argument or statement it means it is clear, straightforward, probably correct, but highly inconvenient to someone. Unable to refute it, that someone will call it simplistic.
An example was the reaction when BBC Wales recently published so-called value-added league tables for Welsh secondary schools and Welsh local education authorities. These data are collated and calculated by the Welsh Government but not published officially.
A compelling objection to publishing a crude league table of schools by examination results is that schools in poor areas with many culturally and materially deprived children will inevitably produce worse examination results than schools in well-to-do areas where the children have advantages like private or home coaching. The results are unfair because society is unfair in not being able to provide equality of opportunity to all children.
It was to meet that objection that value added tables were constructed. They try and take account of all the factors that influence a child’s academic performance to estimate what such a child on average would normally achieve. Then they compare the actual results a school gets with those that might be expected. That way, some schools in poor areas with apparently mediocre results may show up as working wonders in improving children’s performance while some apparently high-flying schools may be doing no better or even worse than they should, given their intake.
Are the methods foolproof or above criticism? Surely not. But they make sense and are objective in that they rely on observable data not impressions. No doubt they could be improved and over time, with effort, they should be.
And examination results aren’t everything of course. What about all the imponderables like happiness, being socially well-adjusted, enjoying sports and all the other things we want our children to be – as well as passers of exams? Well, here’s a funny thing. On the whole schools that are doing well academically tend not to be the schools that have children who are unhappy, disturbed and prone to anti-social behaviour. Good things tend to go together.
If value added tables were published would people try and get into the high-ranking schools, polarising results as wealthier families gravitated to the better schools? That happens now but these tables would not increase the tendency at all. The reason is that the tables show which schools are doing well by their pupils, but the pupils may be a deprived lot. Most parents would prefer to go for a school with good results, even if the results come from the intake. Such a school will still have more prestige and social cachet than a better-performing school in a poor area with worse exam results.
What then is the objection to publishing value-added tables? Well, search me. And when I read the reactions from representatives of local authorities, teaching unions and the Welsh Government to the BBC’s revelations I am still none the wiser.
The Welsh Government said it did not believe “simplistic league tables” had a role in improving schools and “that is why we scrapped them”. Translation: we scrapped league tables but we can’t explain why we won’t publish these improved tables so we’ll use the simplistic word and hope no-one notices we don’t have an argument. Dr Philip Dixon, director of ATL (Association of Teachers and Lecturers), said:
“We accept that the education system in Wales needs to up its game so that our children achieve the sorts of results that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. However, we do not believe that any sort of table that names and shames schools plays any useful purpose in that agenda. We need to learn from the best-performing schools how to mainstream their successes, but shaming those that seem to under perform will not be helpful.”
“Shame” is Dr Dixon’s word. The tables don’t pass comment. His statement accepts implicitly that metrics of school performance are necessary – how otherwise could the ‘best-performing schools’ be identified and emulated? It implies though that the while educators need to know these things the public and parents are not to be trusted with the knowledge.
And why not? Because it would “not be helpful”. In the absence of a more explicit and comprehensible argument, I think we are entitled to fear that the objection is it would not be helpful to Dr Dixon’s members who might be more accountable to parents. David Evans, of NUT Cymru, said:
“What we need to be doing is ensuring that there’s a good local school for every child and there’s a good local school for every community. All league tables do, and all comparisons directly from one school to the other, [is] breed resentment within the community, within the schools, and within the teaching profession as well.”
That, of course, is not all value-added tables do. They provide information to parents, who would otherwise have no means of knowing whether the local school is doing as well, better or worse than could be expected, taking all relevant factors into account. Is that information likely to help ensure the local school is ‘good’ or not? I would have thought so and any “resentment within the community” would be more accurately directed than at present.
The local authority reaction was to point out that the value-added tables did not always produce the same results as school inspections, an important point if generally true. It suggests that some work needs to be done on inspections or on the tables or on integrating the two. It is not an argument for sweeping everything under the carpet.
All the reactions are depressing. Note how both union officials start off with a pious statement with which no-one could or does disagree and then follow it with an assertion that is entirely unsupported by argument or evidence. A considered critique of the method of the tables and suggestions for how they need to be improved before publication would have been fair enough. All we get is self-protective obscurantism. It boils down to ‘don’t make our lives uncomfortable, we don’t want to be publicly accountable, trust us’.
Where has trust got us up to now in secondary education? If they can’t make a better case than that, Leighton Andrews should follow the Duke of Wellington’s advice: “publish and be damned”.