Headmaster's Blog

What do league tables tell us?

I am at once delighted and frustrated as I sit down to write this entry. On the one hand, I'm clearly delighted for our young people who, at both GCSE and ‘A’ level, have achieved such impressive results. However, it's not the bare percentages that delight me, impressive as these are: I'm delighted because we have got to know the individuals behind the scores; their qualities of character and personality; the rich lives they lead outside the classroom; the ambitious plans and aspirations they have for their futures – all of which have contributed so much to the achievement in their exams.
I also know the teachers and families that have inspired them and sought out the best in them, valued them as individuals and helped give them the confidence to become what they have.
On the other hand, my frustration (and I wouldn't put it any more strongly than that) rests with that apparently revered tell-all of our time – the school exam league table – and with the teaching Unions (specifically the ASCL and the NAHT) who are calling for an overhaul of how league tables are composed so that 'parents can judge for themselves how local schools have performed.'
The unions' campaign shoots itself – and the teaching profession – in the foot: a campaign such as theirs raises the profile of league tables in an unhelpful way and lends them more importance than they deserve. We simply shouldn't get excited about league tables.
Of course, governments will maintain records of this sort because it is their job to measure standards across the country and they need some way of doing this, however crude. But parents choosing an environment in which their children will be nurtured for years at a time know better than to rely on statistics alone. No matter how many extra criteria the Unions' revamped league table might try to measure and tabulate, it will never be a substitute for visiting the school, talking to the teachers and observing the students who are already there. Parents appreciate this, so why invest time and effort in trying to improve a fundamentally limited tool?
Judgement of the effectiveness of a school requires an understanding of story and context; of the ethos and character of a place. Excellence in schools stems from being released to focus on creating that ethos, from a culture of confidence which allows staff to commit to strategies which are right for their students and their communities, a culture that inspires confidence and a love of learning amongst students.
League tables won't go away but they are certainly overrated. They are not the defining characteristic of a school nor can they ever measure the qualities that really matter: developing the character and confidence within young people which, when it's seen, reminds teachers why we joined this profession and parents why choosing the right school for their children is such a significant decision.

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School