Some New League Table Games

There’s an article in today’s Guardian on the issue of tiering of GCSE papers. In itself, this should be a technical issue about whether you can set one paper to cover the whole ability range and, if not, what kind of differentiation in questioning is appropriate.

But lurking in the article is further evidence of a much more fundamental and alarming problem. It suggests, not surprisingly, that selection for the different tiers is far from perfect with many students limited to a C when they could have done better. This is a salutary reminder that all selection systems are imperfect and all are likely to damage some pupils’ chances.

But in this case we also have the malign influence of the accountability system – league tables focusing on the C grade threshold – which makes everyone play safe – in the author’s words “scrambling for easy C’s”. He also gives examples of classes entered early for the foundation level (grades G to C) to get their C in the bag. Some entered the higher level a year later but others were diverted to another course just to increase their GCSE count.

This is of a piece with the broader national evidence. The proportion of pupils entering GCSE early has increased massively. This year saw 23 per cent of the maths cohort sitting maths a year early. In English literature and language, the figures were 11 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. They will then sit it again in Year 11 or – even worse – use the time for other subjects so as to pile up more and more GCSE passes. As a result many have to settle for a lower grade than they might have achieved if they’d waited till Year 11.

An even more extraordinary figure is that in 2012 15% of maths candidates entered maths GCSE with more than one exam board – some 90,000 candidates. The hope clearly is that this will increase the chance of a good grade but at a big financial cost to schools and a huge cost in time and stress for pupils.

These are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as schools try every trick in the book to get their 5 A* to C figure up. Gaming the league tables is clearly no longer just a matter of using some slightly dodgy vocational courses. It is increasingly infecting the whole of the Key Stage 4 programme – and indeed KS3 as exam courses are pushed down to start in Year 9.

What we seem to be seeing is two critical years of education being reduced to a crude scramble for qualifications. No doubt there will be claims that somehow students benefit from all these extra opportunities. But the reality is that the interests of the school, its reputation and sometimes its sheer survival, are what is driving the system. And we can anticipate that with the changes to GCSE being proposed things will get worse – to have everything hanging on how a pupil performs on one day in June is scary … schools will look for safety nets and early or double entries will be one way of providing that.

It would be possible to at least reduce the worst aspects of what is happening by some simple rules – for example banning entry with more than one board in the same subject. Early entry should be confined to real high flyers who are going to be ready to start advanced courses.

But real change will take more than that. The massive weight that is now being put on simple attainment data is distorting and damaging children’s education. It determines a school’s public esteem, it is the main factor behind Ofsted judgements and increasingly decides whether heads keep their jobs and what teachers get paid.

This is simply too much for one piece of data to cope with. It’s a very basic rule that paying too much attention to particular indicators inevitably changes how people behave and causes them to focus on the measure not on the fundamental aims of the process. The problems are not simply exceptional bad apples – they’re how the system will inevitably react when institutional and individual survival is at stake.

The need for accountability will not go away. Nor will the need to assess and record what pupils know and can do. But the current system is being stretched to absolute breaking point and will need to change.

One Comment on “Some New League Table Games”

  1. David Pavett says:

    I agree with many of the points made in this blog. However, given that the SEA is an affiliated organisation of the Labour Party one might reasonably expect a comment on Labour policy regarding the impact of league tables as described. As far as I know Labour gives the same uncritical support for league tables as the Conservative Party. Am I wrong about this? Have I missed some Labour clarification which means that it would do something different?

    I am also not clear why “Early entry should be confined to real high flyers who are going to be ready to start advanced courses”. For example supposing a good maths student is ready to take maths GCSE early (as many are). Why should his only be allowed if they are ready to start advanced courses? Perhaps such a student does not want to do advanced maths. I am not at all clear about the reasoning of the above blog piece on this.