Alternative performance tables court controversy

Trevor Fisher writes:

The announcement in August that four leading school organisations were setting up an alternative series of school performance tables largely flew under the radar. The annual controversy over GCSE and A Level results took attention away from an initiative which broke with a twenty year consensus on school accountability. The challenge to the Westminster system by schools running their own league tables was perhaps misunderstood. The organisations involved – ASCL and NAHT, representing the heads, the United Learning Trust plus, PIXL, the school improvement organisation – were clear that this is not an attempt to supplement official government performance tables. It is an attempt to undermine them.

This was stated in the brief for the first set of performance tables, which said “It is intended that, over the next three years, these will become the established, independent means of publishing data that bypasses politicians and government”

Given that performance tables were established by John Major’s Citizen’s Charter to supply accurate information on school performance via the Department for Education (DfE), it is clear that important school leaders believe the government has failed to supply accurate information. Although there is a General Election coming, they also see no chance of problems with the performance tables being remedied by a change of government.

These are not marginal organisations. The National Association of Head Teachers represents most primary head teachers. The Association of School and College Leaders represents most secondary heads. PIXL now claims 800 schools are signed up to its exam improvement programme, while the United Learning Trust claims many schools in both independent and state sectors. Why are they going out on a limb, and why now? Performance tables have been controversial in the past, but less so in 2014 when journalists regularly recycle the tables for the information of local readers. However this is one reason why school leaders think the current tables are misleading.

In setting out their stall, the leaders were explicitly dismissive of the DfE tables Jon Coles, of the United Learning Trust, alleged “Over time, the tables have become less a way of giving parents the information they want and more an arms length policy lever by which successive governments have sought to influence the decisions Heads take”. Russell Hobby, of the NAHT, said “the government’s performance tables have become a sledgehammer to crack the system”, while Sir John Rowling, Chair of PIXL, said “Schools feel pushed and pulled by the complex, no-notice changes to school league tables. This new way of presenting information (shows) the results that students actually achieve without the artificial filters that are based on the politics of the day or hour”.

The deep anger underlying these complaints focus on a perceived attempt to politicise performance tables. Many Heads feel they are controlled by the selective supply of information, though in theory they are autonomous – and can decide what qualifications are best for their students. In practice only a limited range of qualifications are allowed in Performance Tables, by an arbitrary process imposed with little consultation. The crucial floor target of 5 A*-C grades in GCSE or equivalent has long been felt to push schools to prioritise borderline C/D candidates above other students above or below the borderline. The Wolf report which removed many vocational equivalents from performance tables heightened the pressures on heads – the qualifications can be taken by schools, but are not recognised by the new tables, putting heads in a Catch 22 situation.

Feelings came to a head last autumn when Michael Gove announced that resits would be removed from the Performance Tables, only the first sitting of an exam counting. While this addressed a perceived Gaming culture in schools, this effectively stopped many schools entering students early for exams when they were felt to be ready to take them. This summer there was a 40% drop in entries for 15 year old students. Neither the decision, nor its outcome, had serious debate.

There is legitimate concern over ‘Gaming’ of qualifications, particularly the use of vocational equivalents. Alison Wolf’s report that vocational equivalents to GCSE were rarely equivalent and short changed students was widely accepted. She acknowledged, however, the role of floor targets and other government initiatives in turning schools into virtual examination factories and this continues.

But early entry and repeats are not Gaming, though they can be abused. Since the start of the current exam system in 1951, students have been allowed to take exams early. Resits have also been part of the culture. For some students early entry is highly desirable if they are ready to achieve. In mathematics and music in particular, some students are well able to cope and it is wrong to hold them back. However the practice of entering students on mass for early exams is dubious.

Resitting exams is less dubious, and for me resitting was a career saver. When I took my O Levels in 1963, the only exam I failed was German. This was serious as a language pass was vital for university entrance, so my school allowed me to study and resit in the Lower Sixth. I then failed a second time. By this time I was entering the second year of A level study and the Head took my failure as a personal challenge. He laid on one to one tuition, I achieved a pass at the third time of asking, and off I went to university. I owe my career to that decision.

The role of schools and colleges is to achieve results. This should not be at the expense of a broad education. But if it takes extra effort to get the students the grades they need, why should this be penalised? Whatever the prospects of a system of alternative performance tables, there is no doubt Russell Hobby is right – the current system is a sledgehammer to crack the system. Gaming is illegitimate, but the measures in this place are indefensible. It is time to ask what interests the current performance tables serve.

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