Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Down with league tables

When I was a new parent anxiously seeking a school for my precious firstborn there was nothing in my life that was more important than an Ofsted reports and league tables. I spent weeks poring over the reports for each potential school, instantly scorning any establishment that fell too far down the table or gained less than an Outstanding grade. Obviously nothing but the best would be good enough for my child genius in the making.

We drove all over the surrounding counties viewing houses situated in the elusive catchment areas for  these rarefied establishments. One parent I knew bought a house for over six figures just so she could be down the road from her local Outstanding state school. Even we, who were in a much less lofty financial position, eventually sold our house to secure a place at a top rated school. Other, much more sensible, parents let their own houses and decamped to rental properties to the same end.

Nothing was more important when it came to judging a school than what those all-knowing inspectors from Ofsted had to say about it. If these experts judged a school to be Outstanding then surely it must be?

Well you would like to think so, but bitter experience has taught me that perhaps such slavish following of Ofsted's advice puts parents in a rather less informed position than they might expect. You see, while Ofsted is very concerned about how many children turn up at school on time, about whether homework is marked promptly and whether the school communicates (i.e. sends home endless letters) well, there are certain areas where it appears to be blind.

This I learnt when my own sons' once Outstanding school was brutally downgraded to Needs Improvement last year. I suspect this was in part due to a general feeling from those in power that state schools needed a good slapping, after all those pesky teachers will keep striking, but it also seemed to be due to a distinct lack of interest by the inspectors in anything other than ticking boxes.

Was attendance high? Were targets clearly set and met? What were the standards reached in core subjects and what was the quality of teaching in an individual class? All important questions, but the answers only cover a fraction of what a school actually does every day. You see my sons' primary school didn't nosedive over night, it was still the same school we'd chosen all those years ago but Ofsted simply couldn't see any of it's qualities as it was too busy with its pen hovering to answer formulaic questions.

While no school is perfect, and ours certainly had plenty of flaws that might well mean it deserved to lose it's Outstanding crown, it wasn't and isn't a school limping along in desperate need of assistance. It struggles thanks to a demographic that increasingly has English as a second language, but it also succeeds in areas that were clearly of no interest to Ofsted, but might be crucial to a parent choosing the right school for their child.

This is why I greet the news today that secondary school headmasters are striking back with their own alternative league tables  that will allow parents an insight not only into what exam results a school achieves, but the culture of a school as expressed by the extras it offers. The rich extracurricular banquet from which league tables and Ofsted reports puritanically abstain.

For example at my boys' school there is a gold medal winning string orchestra, which plays like a choir of angels. This orchestra is made up of a rag tag of pupils, mostly playing rented instruments all of whom are coached for nothing by a dedicated and talented parent at 8am before school. Now that really is outstanding, but Ofsted doesn't even know it exists and it wins no points in a league table.

There's are also sports and art, chess and computing clubs, mostly provided for virtually nothing by selfless parents and teachers. There are trips to the theatre and visits from national theatre groups, there are plays and concerts, talent shows and baking competitions. There is a huge and rich culture to which a table of results pays no attention whatsoever.

These are the things that really make a school outstanding to attend. It is impossible to ride high in academic league tables when your pupils are pulled from immigrant communities who are more concerned with actually finding their feet in a new country, than with arriving at school on time. When the language spoken at school is rarely the Queen's English and when many parents don't understand the first thing about the British education system.

But while it might not be able to serve up the top grades parents think a school should be judged on, it is important not to dismiss a school out of hand. Just because only a minority achieve top marks, doesn't mean that it is impossible to do so, it might just mean that for a majority of the children simply understanding the lessons is a achievement alone as they only just learning to speak English.

Equally while education is about learning, it's also about enriching a child's life. That, I believe, is delivered by schools in a myriad of ways from drama to trips, music to sports, pastoral care to community events and even the chance to mix with those children from different cultures and backgrounds who are the very reason a school might not top the league tables. In my opinion these should be far more important when you choose as school than whether it has good attendance figures!

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