Comfort zone drives down standards

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”.

Gerald Holtham is an IWA trustee. This article orivinally appeared on his blog here.

4 thoughts on “Comfort zone drives down standards

  1. The reluctance in publishing comparative data between schools is due to the problems that parental choice brings. In Wales we are fortunate that parental choice is highly limited due to our geography and lack of population density.

    The true effects of parental choice can be seen not too far away, in Bristol. Bristol’s education has been likened to apartheid. Middle class parents are so deperate not to send their children to schools that are dominated by working class children, that they are prepared to pay £9,000 a year to send their children to private schools. Bristol has more independent secondary schools than state secondaries. The highest achieving non-independent schools in Bristol are faith schools that have restrictive entry requirements. Instead of education being a motor for social mobility, in Bristol it has become the cause of the creation of middle class ghettos.

    The reason why people in Wales are concerned about comparative data is that it is the tool used to segregate schooling into haves and have nots.

  2. Billy, I am not sure these arguments are the same; publishing comparative data on school performance does not necessarily equate to more choice (whether you think that is a good or bad thing). We should not confuse the two; I want to see more of the former but not necessarily the latter.

    I am with Gerry on this; why can’t the public be trusted with data that must exist within the Welsh Government to assess school performance. Any engineer knows that to improve systems performance you have to measure current performance (the same applies to any business or organisation). Without this how do we know our interventions work! So performance monitoring and measurement are essential pre-requisites to sustainable and systematic performance improvement. We should do this in the public domain and not hidden away in a dark corridor. For too long the teaching establishment in Wales has glossed over some fundamental weaknesses in the education system in Wales. (If I get the time I’ll pen a piece on the subject for this forum). We need to show a little more respect for Welsh tax payers and remember the primary focus of our education system must be the child and his/her specific educational needs – I suspect that objective gets overlooked far too often.

  3. No one should be under the illusion that teachers’ performances are are not being measured and monitored. At a school level this data is known by the Welsh Government, Local Authorities and Estyn. All of these agencies put pressure on schools to meet specific and particular targets. Individual teachers are monitored and observed by management and, in the case of secondary school teachers, their performance is evaluated by the results of external examinations. Teachers are made accountable to their management, council advisors and Estyn inspectors. Teachers are held to account every parents evening by the parents of their students. At secondary schools, students do not opt for subjects taught by teachers whom they judge unfavourably.

    The issue is not whether teachers are being measured and monitored, but the dangers of using comparative data. The IWA showed the potential problems of using this data when it chose five schools to exemplify best practice at key stage 3. None of the five turned out to be in the top 20% of the schools in Wales when listed using value added data.

    There is no way that this data can be kept out of the public’s domain due to the Freedom of Information Act. It should though come with a government health warning.

  4. The point is that no parents will seek to change school because of value-added data. Aspiring parents want to send children to a school with good results, irrespective of whether that is down to the intake or the teaching. Equally they will not be attracted by a school with a very deprived intake and mediocre results even if the value added is high. But the value added numbers will tell parents whether their kids school is doing worse or better than can reasonably be expected. How can that be bad? If the data don’t correspond to qualitative measures that is a reason for improvement, not suppression.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy