Tuesday 9 September 2014

Sceptical about schools that do well in the tables

I'm now living in West Sussex and, every five minutes or so, some kind of comparison with London occurs to me that would make a blog post.  Perhaps the most obvious is in the schools.

West Sussex County Council has put my children in two different schools, which is I suppose a comment on public service choice in education (I know - it's only supposed to be a right to express a preference).  I have no idea what the education is like - though one of them is a very small school, very high on the league tables (more about that in a minute) - but the schools themselves are absolutely delightful.

They are informal and friendly. They are helpful and inclusive, by which I mean they are welcoming to newcomers.  They are not bossy.  They don't talk down to me.  Their walls are full of pictures, not attendence and punctuality graphs. They are about as different to London schools as it is possible to be.

My children are themselves excited to be in a school where they are allowed to talk to each other outside break time.  They can talk in the corridors.  They can learn from each other (the basis of education as far as I'm concerned) by working in groups.

This is unheard of freedom from Gradgrindism and I applaud it.

As I did the rather longer school run yesterday, I happened to listen to a fascinating diatribe by the headmaster of Eton about Ofsted and the examination system.

Tony Little said that the great success of Ofsted is to insist that low standards are never inevitable.  This is correct.  You only have to look back two decades, when Southwark for example (in its pre-Lib Dem period) got only 15 per cent with five GCSE passes in the first league tables in 1992.

He also said the exam and measurement system is archaic.  In fact, he's been leading the assault against measurement over the summer.

In doing so, he is both asserting that the exam system is failing young people, by undermining the way they prepare for the modern world, and also peddling a very traditional message about broad education and its importance.

Perhaps it is inevitable that the independent sector has become a bastion of the case against Ofsted.  It is a pity that they are also allowing themselves to slip out of the hands of ordinary people in the UK - the prices charged by independent schools increasingly make them the preserve of foreign millionaires and the offspring of the financial services.  They are not for us any more (see my book Broke for more on this).

Which is a pity because the case is vitally important.  It is why I am usually sceptical about schools at the top of the league tables.  What does it say about them?  What creativity are they sacrificing to get there?  How are the figures being gamed?

There is clearly a tendency for the schools at the very top to provide the narrowest, Gradgrindian education.  That is the real message of the league tables, just as it is across public services.

We need to be a bit suspicious about any service provider where the output figures look too good.

There is a counter argument, and I'm only too aware of it.  According to the figures, London schools are doing a good deal better than West Sussex schools, even though they are not allowed to talk in corridors.

But we need to be a little bit sceptical of that too, because of the circularity in the argument.  London schools have a more slavish devotion to the tables and the exams, and perhaps they needed to if they were going to drive up standards.  Of course, then, they look better in the measurements that result.

The question is - how much is gaming and how much is real achievement.  It's going to be a mixture, but one thing is absolutely clear: you won't be able to tell from the figures.

The 'deliverologist' Michael Barber says that targets and numerical standards were require to force the system to improve - and they may well be less useful later.  That may be true: but having let Barber's measurement demon out of the box, I'm not sure it is possible to put it back in.

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