Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, recently wrote an article championing league tables and their importance in “giving parents power”. Assuming that he was writing from more than a cynical desire to validate the Sunday Times’ own ‘Parent Power Schools Guide’, published in the same issue, it is a sign of how resilient this view of league tables is against the strong opposition from teachers and schools, and increasingly also from parents and researchers in education. Woodhead labels this opposition a “virus” that has spread from teachers who are only watching their own backs. He pays no heed to the possibility that teachers, being the people who actually interact with children in schools on a daily basis, are best placed to observe the corrosive effects of an excessive emphasis on attainment.
Woodhead responds to many of the criticisms of league tables, but only in generalised terms. He brushes aside the fact that they focus only on the academic results of a school with the statement that “this point is so obvious it should not need making”. Yet when Woodhead gives as evidence for the importance of rankings the fact that the abolition of league tables in Wales has led to a 1.92 drop in GCSE grades per pupil, he fully supports the statement that this is a sign of “reduced school effectiveness”. That the “effectiveness” of schools cannot be measured in anything but exam results is thankfully a view that is dwindling; take, for example, the fact that Oxford shows no signs of taking into account the new A* grade, recognizing that it is of minimal importance compared to the far more telling interview process.
When a school is labeled the ‘top’ with absolutely no consideration of factors other than what that year’s batch of pupils scored in their GCSEs and A levels, it sends a clear message that nothing beyond academic results really matters. Everyone who has been through secondary school knows the result: in the final years of school, working for those exams is absolutely the top priority of pupils and teachers, and initiatives to broaden our education, or to develop emotional and social intelligence – as much as they are supported in theory – are rarely met with lasting commitment.
As serious as this is, it is not the most damaging effect of league tables. The half of us who come out of education with good results will hopefully find time later to scrape together some social skills and wider interests to sustain our lives. The real damage of league tables is their trickle-down effect on the self concept of those at underachieving schools, and of those in every school who fall below the average mark in a world where results are all. Research into the impact of perceptions of failure on future motivation has been around for over twenty years, and a study has recently been completed by a team here at Oxford that fully establishes a causal link between academic self-concept and achievement. It is certainly arguable that the attainment gap between those schools at the top of tables and those at the bottom has far more to do with how the atmosphere of testing and over-emphasis on attainment affects the sense of motivation in the teachers and pupils in the lower half than on the standard of teaching at those schools.
In our effort to push up attainment levels, we have not stopped to question whether in pushing for that attainment we are threatening something more valuable. But until we get rid of league tables entirely and rely on more nuanced means of assessing schools on multiple fronts, we will never know.