Teacher unions are critical of league tables. When tables of college entry linked to schools were published in national newspapers last week, the general secretary of the ASTI said that “It is important to recognise that these tables do not tell us about the real performance of schools. In fact they present a shallow, incomplete and distorted picture of the work of schools.” Although many educators might agree with this view, it can sometimes be helpful to look at the other side.
Let’s just suppose that league tables are useful. At their very best, what good are they? Here are some possible benefits that I can think of.
• They are easy to read and accessible to a wide range of students, parents and other interested parties.
• They provide information about one important outcome of post-primary education, in a country where college places on many courses are limited.
• They inform schools about how their peer schools are doing in terms of preparing students for progression to college
• They may help parents choose a school for their son or daughter (assuming that location, fees, family tradition, and availability of places are not barriers to enrolment)
• They complement other information that parents have about schools from inspectors’ reports, sports team results, school musicals, other parents, and so on.
• They illustrate regional disparities in terms of access to college.
All these benefits are laudable and may explain, in part at least, why they are liked by newspaper readers. So, why are teacher unions opposed to league tables? Are they just protecting their members’ interests or could there be a downside to such tables? Britain has been publishing educational league tables for many years. Although these tables provide information about exam results rather than about third level access, their experience shows league tables to be problematic.
First, if principals and teachers become preoccupied with the league tables, they tend to focus on the outcome that is publicised in the tables, to the possible detriment of other school aims. If we take it to an extreme, a school that wanted to improve its ranking on the Irish table could encourage students to take subjects in which higher grades tend to be awarded over and above subjects that students are interested in; extra-curricular activities could be discouraged after transition year; and guidance counsellors could encourage students to apply for college places even if the student would be happier to choose an alternative route, such as taking on an apprenticeship.
Second, league tables provide limited information for parents. No information is given about the richness of the curriculum that is provided, about innovations in the school, or about how the school provides accommodations for students with special needs (Finkelstein & Grubb, 2000).
Third, league tables don’t show how a school improved a student’s chance of getting into a particular college or programme. They do show that in an elite school you are almost certain to progress to third level and in other schools, you are unlikely to enter third level. But in between is the majority of schools and these schools might well make a difference to your college chances. But crucially, league tables don’t help parents understand which of these schools will be of more help to their son or daughter. Nor do the tables take into account factors such as family background, poverty or the number of children in a school for whom English is not their first language (Finkelstein & Grubb, 2000), and such factors are likely to affect whether or not you get a college place.
The inspection reports conducted by the Department of Education and Skills offer an alternative insight into schools to the one provided by the league tables. Because these reports do not rank schools, they receive less media fanfare. But they provide information that may also help parents choose a school. The parts of these reports that can be read quickly are the school’s strengths and recommendations for improvement. For example, one school that sent 100% of students to third level was found in a report by the Department to have engaged in a practice that had an “inherent risk to health and safety” and another was encouraged to place “less emphasis on the dictation of notes” in class. Although the inspection reports refer to teaching and learning and provide more descriptive information than the league tables, they provide little information for parents on specific student outcomes.
So, inspection reports provide a snapshot of current practices in a school; league tables provide information on a specific school outcome. The problem is that neither reporting mechanism provides information about how a specific school changes a student’s chances of doing well in life. This is because accurately measuring change in students is notoriously difficult. We know that schools make a difference in students’ lives. That implies that some schools will make more of a difference than others. But how do we measure the difference a particular school makes compared to home, friends, innate talents, student motivation, access to computers and books, and so on? Within the school, how do we measure the contribution of the principal, the teachers, the resources, the class sizes, and the subject choices? What about the impact of earlier school experiences? Still, teaching matters. We know, for example, that a teacher with strong mathematical knowledge can boost young children’s performance on a standardised maths test by the equivalent of three week’s extra instruction, even when other factors are taken into account (Hill, Rowan and Ball, 2005). But such measurement projects are difficult to conduct on a countrywide basis and they depend on the quality of the standardised test that is used.
Simplifying these difficult questions into league tables may sell newspapers but it sheds little light on teaching and learning. No matter how good our teaching currently is, there is always room for improvement. Advocates of league tables will claim that as their motivation. Improving teaching is a challenge to individual teachers, to teacher educators to professional developers, and to the system as a whole. Acknowledging that challenge is the first step to guaranteeing that all students experience consistently good teaching. But we need to remember that league tables are about more than just teaching.