Last Thursday was a very good day for Bennett. Ironically, though, in my view it was in many ways a sad for education. It was, of course, the day on which the national school performance tables – the ‘league tables’ – were published. It was an excellent for Bennett, because, although we have known for some time that our examination results, especially those achieved by our students in 2011, were outstanding, it is only really when they can be seen alongside other schools’ that it is possible to see just how very good they actually are. It would be very easy for me to become a statistical bore on this issue, but please indulge just a few basic headlines: 86% for 5 A*-C including English and Maths, and that is by teaching a curriculum which has almost no alternative qualifications; percentages making the expected level of progress in English and mathematics were 96 and 90 respectively; and our value added score was 1036.7 (where 1000 is the average and 1040 is about as high as the scale goes), almost the highest of 100 or so secondary schools right across Kent, this figure being a composite measure of how well students do at GCSE in comparison with their earlier educational achievement. And at A Level the scores were also impressive with an average point score per student of 841.3, (where the national average is 728, and some grammar schools who impose very high entry criteria to filter out potential low achievers from starting A Levels barely manage to break the 900 mark).
A shallow way to deal with this would be to stop at that point and suspend our critical faculties, simply enjoying our success. But that would be absolutely wrong for two reasons. The first is, of course, that we have not yet got to the point we want to be at. Despite these impressive scores, there is important work that is still underway in some areas within the school, though clearly ever decreasing in number. And that is not to mention other aspects of what the school offers for young people, because good schools are not just about high academic achievement.
But the second reason why we need to go further in our reflection on these results is because of what messages are transmitted to the public, subliminally and sometimes not so subliminally, by the ‘debate’ their publication occasions. And this is why last Thursday was in my view a bad day for education. First of all, the media chose to focus on yet more negative messages about schools, as if our daily diet of criticism was not enough. The BBC headlines focused on the percentages of students who had been ‘failed’ by schools this year, revealed this year by a novel method of statistical wizardry. Then we heard reports of criticism by the government because schools and teachers apparently have become very good at helping children ‘jump the hurdles’ the government set up for us and challenged us to cross (the A*-C threshold). And some newspapers carried reports accusing schools of only getting whatever good results they had managed through ‘collusion’ between teachers and examination boards. Absolutely no section of the media reported anything positive about the achievements of students and teachers last year, and as far as I heard it reported, there was not a word of praise from any of our governing politicians for our achievements. This is bad enough for me, as a reflective and experienced professional. I can only imagine what it must feel like for students who worked hard to get their GCSEs and A Levels in 2011, against the backdrop of turmoil over tuition fees and the spectre of future unemployment. Maybe it is a good thing so many of them rarely listen to the news – who can blame them!
On top of all this, if we could be certain that this kind of public exposure actually led worked in incentivising failing schools to improve, perhaps it would be worth the pain. However, if you believe what we are told about our collective underperformance, 20 years or more of league tables have had very little success! (The reality of course is that achievement is massively better in almost every sense than it was 20 years ago when I was first a classroom teacher, but no-one will say that in the media, because it would be a boring story).
The government compares our performance in schools unfavourably with some of the East Asian schools systems such as South Korea, China, Singapore, and so on. In fact, none of these countries publish league tables, because they believe they stifle creativity, force schools to concentrate on the wrong things, distort school choice and demoralise people whose morale is critical to their success. The final argument used for this focus on league tables is that the increased data now being made available helps parents choose good schools. Fine – Bennett benefits enormously from this, as do other successful schools. But the achievement problem we have in England is with the least advantaged end of society, where educational underprivilege has often persisted for several generations. These are the people least able to use the complex tables of data we are offered to aid us in school choice.
We live in an era of openness, and I am not naive enough to think that school achievement data could or should ever be kept ‘secret’ from the public. However, I do think we all, and in particular the media and the government, need to take greater responsibility for it being used in a more balanced and less strident way to assist the very complex process of school improvement, and promote positive language about the achievements of our students and teachers in at least equal measure to highlighting areas where new approaches might be needed.