Home Page Ineptitude of school league table system shown up again by latest spat 21/01/13

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Hart of the Matter

Life is full of surprises – I return from a few days away in Pantoland to find what one might describe as a ‘robust’ discussion going on in the Twittersphere and on this website’s Local Issues message board about the performance of Haverhill’s primary schools being poor (oh no it isn't, oh yes it is).


If you can remember back just before Christmas, the national league tables of primary school performance came out, and Haverhill’s didn’t show up too well, one or two being near the bottom in Suffolk.


Out of 176 in the county, our top one was Place Farm (61st) and our bottom one Westfield (171st). All sorts of stuff has been flying around since, with the schools justifying themselves on their websites and others taking potshots at them.


This, of course, is exactly what everyone knew would happen from time to time as soon as the idea of educational league tables came up, back in the days of the blessed Margaret.


Unfortunately, a league table tells you just about as much about how your child will perform at any given school as an average survival rate for an operation at a particular hospital tells you about your personal chances.


The whole thing is far, far too complicated to be brought down to this simplistic level. At best it gives a status report, a bit like a current commodity price when you are investing in futures.


If you lay out your money in the futures market based on the price you read today in the Telegraph, you are going to make a considerable loss. If you want to be that barmy with your cash you have to do a whole lot more research to learn about that market and the way it operates.


Exactly the same is true of children’s education. So it is equally inaccurate to assume from a lowly position that a school is a poor school, as it is to take the schools’ word for it that the tables are all rubbish and they are all top-class.


I would guess that any teacher, if you asked them, would tell you to go and have a good look at the schools first before making any decision.


You can get quite a sense of how good a school is by visiting, even on its open days, where everything is swept and polished as bright as possible. But you can only do this if you have visited a few and have some sort of benchmark to measure by.


Just visiting one is never going to be enough, because they are all out to impress. It’s no different from buying a new sofa. They all look good in the shop – you have to travel around and try sitting on a dozen or so first, at least. Then you start to notice the little things that may, or may not suit your room or your bottom.


The trouble is, it takes a bit of effort, and for lazy parents it is easier to pick up a newspaper and look down the list of league tables, which is like buying your sofa on line.


I don’t really approve of schools being funded in this commercial manner, which gives them the prime incentive of attracting parents and their offspring in at any price. But if we’re stuck with it, we have to make the effort to make the system work.


People are always saying they want more choice and more say in the big issues which affect them. But the more they say it, the less they do it.


Fifty years ago, when people had to knuckle under and get on with their lives with little choice, they turned out in greater force in local elections than they do now.


Education is different. In those days parents had to put very little into it at all. The child either passed its 11plus and went to a grammar school, or it didn’t and it went to a secondary modern. Or, maybe, if you had enough money, you could choose to send it to a private school, or maybe it was a genius and could get a scholarship to free private education.


So what are we to make of the current debate, which is being carried on, as far as I am aware, by people who have little or no first-hand knowledge of schools, whether from the public or the Press.


I suppose it shows people are interested. I see one participant has looked at the only place in Suffolk with a worse record this time round, which is Lowestoft. Of course, for anyone who knows anything about education in this county, this would be no surprise whatever.


Lowestoft has a history of low achievement, due in the past to social deprivation and unemployment. You will find pockets of this in every county, and within every town – even Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. To say it proves poor schooling is absurd.


Curiously, the debate touched on this sort of mythology in Haverhill, where people thought, erroneously, the poorest performing school must be the Clements. This is an old chestnut, based again on a history of so-called ‘deprivation’, but times move on and things change.


A short time ago Place Farm was in ‘special measures’; now it’s the top Haverhill one in the table. And so it goes on. In a year or two, Westfield will probably be the top one.


Maybe, in time, some Haverhill schools will break through into the top 50, top 30 or whatever. But the town is still one of the cheapest places to get a house in the region, and economic indicators tend to parallel educational ones. It’s a huge generalisation, but I suspect that has something to do with parental input (in time and money, not in genes!).


It is true that, as the chief executive of Suffolk County Council admitted, this year’s results were not as good as we all want. But there has been a lot of upheaval behind these results and we should defer judgement until that has worked through. Then, if we want to judge at all (which it is best for us in the Press to avoid), we should base it on a lot more than a league table.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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