League tables and the race to the middle

Last week the UK educational world engaged in one of its strangest rituals: the release of the national school league tables. Much like the release of the exam results every year, this ritual sees the same kind of arguments for and against the process played out in the press in the time-honored tradition.

The logic behind league tables has been successfully demolished over the course of many years. They are meant to act as a way of providing market information to consumers (parents) to allow for better decision making. This should create a market pressure to innovate and drive up standards but instead leads to perverse incentives in the system which ends up with hidden children (cf: large increases in exclusions during periods of curriculum reform), the gaming of exams, teaching to the test, focusing on borderline students and narrowing of the subjects and experiences on offer to students.

Even if exam results weren’t being massaged by the schools, you can bet that school hierarchies are rarely untouched by league table results; the tendency in the system is to reinforce inequalities between schools as parental choice benefits the schools with reputations, not schools achieving dramatic improvements. In my own local area parents have been remarkably unresponsive to changes in results over time. School A is still seen as the best local school (for results) even though this is transparently no longer the case. Why? Brand power now governs school choice, not educational excellence. If a school is the mother-ship of an empire of academies it becomes very hard to convince parents that the local comprehensive is the smart move even if it beats them in the league table. Parents are risk averse and powerful brands are reassuring; they look for stability.

There is, however, a wider problem. To understand school improvement you need to understand schools. League tables are not seen by schools as useful data to be analysed; they are seen as an unwelcome disturbance to be accommodated. School league tables consistently drag policy and improvement initiatives towards national averages. Right down to the classroom level teachers are being told that as long as their results are above national averages then we can all go home happy. If the national average sits at 66%, then, we are telling parents we are happy with giving their child a 1/3 chance of not getting the GCSE grade they need to progress. No educator goes into the profession with that aim but the league table ritual begins to normalises these standards. We aren’t going to emulate the educational systems of Canada, Singapore, and Finland if our schools are simply focusing on being on step ahead of the next guy. They all need to be stepping up.

We are stuck with a race to the middle. The government can’t be surprised, then, to see a raft of coasting schools slipping below their floor standards- the league tables left them with little incentive to reach for anything else. The architects of school league tables banked on schools having a rational response to outside pressure- to improve. Instead, because schools are filled with humans, they have the human response- to survive. You can’t dramatically raise standards in an education system when everyone is in survival mode; no risk, no innovation, just the copying the current batch of successful models and hoping this does enough to get you over the edge.

Parents choose stability and teachers choose survival- this is the toxic mix that ossifies inequalities and keeps a lid on educational standards in this country.

On this:

Malen, B., & Knapp, M. (1997). Rethinking the multiple perspectives approach to education policy analysis: Implications for policy practice connections. Journal of Education Policy, 12, 419445.

Power, S. and Frandji, D., 2010. Education markets, the new politics of recognition
and the increasing fatalism towards inequality. Journal of Education Policy, 25(3),
pp.385–396.

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