Following calls from Debbie Coslett, CEO of the Brook Learning Trust, to look beyond league tables and focus on students’ true success, Carol Morris, Strategic Director for Academies at The Brook Learning Trust answers our questions on league tables and how to look beyond the data.

When do the league tables come out and what are they based on?

School Performance Tables, often called league tables, are published in January and give information on the achievements of pupils the previous academic year in primary, secondary and 16-18 provision in schools and colleges. They compare a school’s performance with other schools in the Local Authority area and in England as a whole.

For secondary schools and academies, following a set of summer examinations the preceding academic year, the DfE publish performance tables of pupils’ achievement. The public have access to this information, which can be sorted to make comparisons across schools. Other information is also included, such as school size, type and attendance figures.

A key benchmark for secondary schools has been the percentage of pupils gaining at least five A*-C GCSEs including English and mathematics. Introduced to the tables in 2010, the English Baccalaureate – whilst not a qualification in itself – indicates the percentage of pupils achieving A*-C passes in English, mathematics, two sciences, a language and either history or geography.

In addition to these, and other, indicators of attainment, the tables also offer a value-added measure designed to show how well a school has helped its pupils to make progress since the end of primary school. This measure takes into account pupils’ starting points based on key stage two performance and as it is calculated using pupils’ eight best GCSEs, reflects wider achievement than attainment measures.

Please outline the purpose of league tables?

The purpose of the Tables is to ensure that schools and academies are accountable for the performance of their pupils. Transparency of information is important, and the Tables form a significant part of the school accountability system in England. The information about schools and academies produced by the DfE is re-published by media groups in print and online. Headline information is frequently used to report ‘news’ about school examination performance and to produce rankings of the best, and the worst, performers in an area, or nationally. However, with so much data about schools published, summary headlines and ranks can belie actual performance. It requires a relatively detailed understanding of how to interpret the data in order to draw fair and balanced conclusions.

Performance Tables also serve to inform parental choice of school for a child and it is important that parents are fully aware of what performance tables can and cannot offer to them in order to make informed decisions when selecting a school for their child.

Do league tables represent an accurate picture of an individual school’s success?

A range of metrics should be considered alongside each other when evaluating the performance of a school and indeed the tables do give more than one measure of a school’s success. However, whilst acknowledging the published data offers a series of criteria against which a school may be judged in comparison with others, unless the reader has a clear understanding of the limitations of some of the metrics, and the way in which context comes to bear upon these, hypothesising about a school’s perceived success may be flawed.

For example, when comparing schools within a district with quite different intakes, these differences could be ability on entry, or gender, making comparisons of the percentage of pupils achieving 5AC including English and mathematics will not be a fair and balanced comparison. Looking at the value added best 8 GCSE figure against a norm of 1000 will give a more equitable comparison though will not take account of the differences in the performance of boys and girls.

Some critics of the tables argue that the 5ACEM measure has focused attention on pupils on the borderline between D and C suggesting that some schools focus on these young people at the expense of the progress of other pupils. Cynics assert that this feature is designed intentionally however the proposed revisions to the accountability framework for schools move the spotlight onto progress.

It is worth noting that the curriculum a school offers changes from year to year being responsive to the needs of pupils. It is not possible to take into account the curriculum or examination entry decisions that have been made by a school in order to best serve the pupils in a particular cohort as this information cannot be included in the tables. However, clearly a school may have entered pupils for qualifications entirely suitable to the young people but that are not recognised in the tables.

Curriculum and examination entry decisions, in addition to the profile of any cohort, change annually and thus past performance may be indicative of but cannot guarantee future performance.

Do league tables help parents make a better choice?

The Performance Tables clearly contain a lot of information in an interactive format supporting parents in making informed choices about a school for their child. Some of this information is more useful and intelligible than other. The rankings, or leagues, that media organisations produce are often based on a narrow definition of pupil performance and alone present an incomplete picture of what a school’s academic performance is like.

How should people compare different school types that are in the same area and against the national picture?

The Department for Education is revising the use of the Key Stage 4 performance indicators to give greater emphasis to pupil progress, which will be a fairer measure when reflecting upon the successes of schools of different types. In looking at the current tables, an understanding of the type of school, including the gender of pupils as well as the ability profile, should be gained before any comparisons across schools are drawn. Considering the progress information, across the Best 8 GCSEs as well as progress in English and mathematics will offer insight into the success of all pupils. Additionally, looking at how well pupils attend and what destinations they move on to when finishing compulsory education, will also offer a more complete picture of the school experience.

What other key elements should parents be looking for outside of the position in the leagues table?

External information may offer parents a starting point when making decisions about the education of their children, though, as we have found, the headline statistics in Performance tables, or ranking in a local ‘league table’ do not capture the success of a school, nor its vision and values. Information from tables should be considered alongside other external sources of information such as Ofsted reports, if relatively recent, which are readily available to parents through the Ofsted website.

When considering a secondary school, parents can also find a wealth of information much closer to home. Viewing a school’s website can prove very useful as it will offer an insight into the ethos of the school, the learning opportunities offered to pupils both inside and beyond the classroom and arrangements for pastoral care, as well as practical information about how the school is organised.

None of this can replace what is gained from taking the time to visit the school itself. Meeting the Principal or Headteacher, talking with teachers about matters important to parents, talking with current pupils about their own learning experiences, exploring the facilities on offer and the particular strengths or specialisms of the school are powerful activities for parents. They will reflect the experiences and opportunities on offer to prospective pupils and, complemented by an understanding of the information offered by Performance Tables, will ensure parents make a fully informed choice.



About Carol

As Strategic Director of the Brook Learning Trust, Carol’s key responsibilities include refining strategic planning of the Trust, developing short and long-term goals, exploring the feasibility of Trust development opportunities and acting as an improvement partner for each Academy within the Trust.

Alongside her current Strategic Director role, she is an Additional Inspector working for Ofsted.