Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Pointless School League Tables

The school league tables have been released today and as usual make for some interesting reading. I note with interest that my school is performing considerably better than it was in my day, though I hope that's not entirely down to my departure.

Still, these are the official government statistics, so will probably be manipulated in such a way to cover up the real positions (or more likely, the real failings of the state sector).

Let's have a look at the methodology.

The rules are detailed here and here, but I'll summarise the interesting bits:


  • Schools are ranked by the percentage of pupils gaining at least five A* to C grades, including the key subjects of English and mathematics, which is the Government’s preferred measure of achievement.
  • In the event of a tiebreak, schools are ranked by the average GCSE points score per student. For the purpose of the table, a student with an A* gains 58 points, A = 52, B = 46, C = 40, D = 34, E = 28, F = 22, G = 16.

A Levels:

  • Institutions are ranked by the average points score per student. A student gaining an A grade scores 270 points, B = 240, C = 210, D = 180, E = 150.

The first rule there is clearly bloody useless for differentiating either good or bad schools. Sure, you can assume that a school with >95% of pupils getting 5 "good" GCSE passes is quite good, this doesn't give you any of the detail you need when selecting a school for your children. It is completely useless at showing you which school managed to get their children to 5 Cs and which pushed the children harder, until they all got 10 A*s.

Worse still, having this as the Official Government Measure of school success (at this level) means that state schools are severely hampered in their attempts to actually push excellent children to perform as well as they can. If you're an over-worked teacher, with highly limited time to pay attention to the 35 children in your class, are you going to spend your time helping the bright kids move from a B to an A*, or the thick children from a D to a C. Only the latter actually 'counts' as being worth-while in this Government's eyes.

This might explain why for A Levels, schools are graded on average points per pupil. One thing that confuses me as well, is why these point systems seem so different to that which I remember from my youth. As I recall, the old system gave you 10 points for an A and 2 points for an E (at A Level). This looks a lot different.

With the current rules for GCSE, a child who is able to get 2 Es has more points than one who only gets a single A. A D and and E outweigh an A*. The rules are similar for A Level, where again two Es outweigh a single A. A Child who gets 4 Cs is "worth" more to the government than one with 3 As. Under the old system, a child would have to gain 6 C grades to be in excess of another with 3 As. I for one would prefer my child to have 3 As at A Level than 4 Cs. I think most people would agree with that. Most people would , apart from the government.

The effect of this rule is similar to the 5 A*- C ranking. Once again teachers and schools are being pushed by the government into making teaching decisions that are less good for their charges. I have no doubt whatsoever that most teachers and schools do the best they can with the limited time and resources but there will always be cases where they know that it's "best" to persuade an average child to go for more exams, and get lower grades rather than specialise in one less exam and leave school with shining qualifications.

I'm ignoring the usual level of government meddling, such as removing IGCSEs from the rankings. Personally, if the schools that are universally acknowledged as the best in the country stopped taking my "official" exams in preference of another, more rigorous qualification, I wouldn't dismiss them as "fatuous". I would be much more inclined to learn why they dismiss the National Curriculum and what steps they suggest should be taken.

The thing that amazes me is that despite every effort made to boost the "performance" of under-performing children and schools the state sector still can't match the private sector on performance. I count only getting three state schools in the top 50 at A Level (all Grammars by the way) as a pretty miserable failure for the sector. I have no doubt that with rankings that were actually fair, the situation would appear even more dire.

Maybe if the tables were fair, and as a result the government rewarded excellent teaching rather than merely getting the most beneficial set of results the quality of the results from the state sector would improve. Maybe if teachers were able to teach in such a manner that ensured the best results for their pupils, rather than being pulled down to an "acceptable" performance across the board, then the rankings would rise.

As these tables stand the government is demonstrating once again why it has failed the country and excels only in promoting mediocrity.


  1. I wonder why they use different scores at A-level from the UCAS ones (which are, if memory serves, pretty similar to the old 10/8/... scores) - the ones you quote vastly over-rank low grades, when (pragmatically) the opposite is how people view the scores.

    Oxbridge won't take someone just because they've got a huge pile of 'E' grades, because being mediocre at a lot of things isn't actually very useful.

    Perhaps it's intended to make schools push pupils to do more A-levels - a typical load now seems to be 5, compared to 3 when I was taking mine. That early specialisation did mark us out from the rest of the world, but it's also why our degrees only took 3 years - now, with broader and shallower A-levels, universities are being forced to teach "the basics" and will probably end up adding a fourth year to compensate...

  2. The King of Wrong,

    The 'new' UCAS ones are 120, 100, 80, 60, 40.

    (Though there will be an A* from this year)

    So now 3 E's = 1 A rather than 4 Es under the old system.

    At least 3 As beats 4 Cs. Why the government uses a different system for their rankings, I don't know.