League tables have blighted our education system for far too long

Here I am pictured with past student William Wilkes in Frankfurt last week.
Here I am pictured with past student William Wilkes in Frankfurt last week.

School Matters column with Dennis Richards

It was a bit like asking Knaresborough Town to compete with Manchester United in the Premier league. No disrespect to Paul Stansfield and his valiant troops.

Deutsche Bundesbahnen.

Deutsche Bundesbahnen.

Manse Lane is a homely, fiercely committed local community club. But even the most diehard supporter would accept that Old Trafford is a different ball game in more ways than one.

Schools are not competing on a level playing field either.

And so the concept of “value-added” was introduced. The idea was a good one.

What did schools actually achieve for individual students, when you took into account that they were coming into schools from very different starting points?

The trouble was, it became fiendishly complicated when “contextual” data was also added. Percentage of free school meals children, speakers of other languages?

Percentage of boys? Number of August birthdays? Postcodes? Reading ages? It could have gone on for ever. Number of left-handers? Number of pupils with size 10 feet? Number of students with bad wind?

The whole effort was abandoned and we started again.

The latest version is called Progress 8 and was in use for the first time in 2016. Hands up, if you understand it. Or have even heard of it. I won’t bother trying to explain it, as I am not sure it is long for this world. Watch this space.

The truth is that league tables have blighted our system for far too long. Parents have, of course, every right to see detailed information about every aspect of their children’s school. That ship sailed long ago.

It is the ranking of schools in a public forum which both demoralises schools and acts as a brake on curriculum and cultural development. However many schemes are tried, the playing field simply cannot be levelled.

As you now get double points for English and Maths, it’s obvious where schools will put all their efforts.

This week’s Budget, however, is confidently predicted to attempt to enhance the status of Technology and maybe even introduce “T” Levels.

It will only work if Eton wholeheartedly adopts them, and the league tables are adapted to prioritise technical subjects.

Not that my predictions are any good. I recall saying on BBC in 2002 that “we need to build a curriculum for a world which includes Japan.” Japan promptly went bust.

Now Philip Hammond is telling us to “look at Germany”. So, last week, I did precisely that. Past student, William Wilkes, from Pannal is now in his early thirties, and works in Frankfurt.

He is a highly successful journalist for the Wall Street Journal writing on German finance and business. Travelling by train from Cologne to Frankfurt to meet up with him, the journey took an hour. The train travelled at 185 mph. I took a picture to prove it. Engineering is a high status profession in Germany. And it shows.

We have some catching up to do. And the league tables don’t tell the most important story either.

Visiting the dentist recently, prone on the chair, mouth open, ready for the agony of the injection…..the dental nurse appears above me. Amanda!!! Aaargh!!

How many times did I tell her to fasten her top button, tuck her shirt in, rail at her for not doing her homework? In fact, she was kindness itself. I’m not sure that Amanda contributed much to improving our league table position. And given where I was, who cares?