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Average student development is more important than leagues table results

By Jenny Allum - posted Thursday, 20 March 2003

I congratulate the Sydney Morning Herald on its thoughtful, rigorous and visionary research article on a BluePrint for Education for Australia. Clearly, a number of the suggested ways forward are long term, and extremely costly for our nation. They need to be considered clearly and thoughtfully but soon, if we are to make any changes which will impact on society and our teachers.

I would particularly like to pick up two issues raised in the article. The first one was the issue of quality of teaching. The second is the issue of school reports and reporting to parents and the community about the performance of a school and its teachers. Clearly, these two issues are interlinked.

While increased salaries and conditions for teachers, reduced class sizes and changed structures within the teaching profession are important considerations when thinking of increasing the quality of teaching, other issues are just as important. The majority of teachers I see are committed, dedicated and enthusiastic people, passionate about teaching and their subjects.


What they need, as well as a decent salary, is relief from administrative tasks so that they can concentrate on their teaching. They also need time to plan and develop relevant, meaningful and authentic resources and programs. Thirdly, it is vital that a strong constructive appraisal program be put in place to celebrate their strengths and help them to continue to grow and develop as professionals.

What they don't need is homogenised school reports listing doubtful statistics and media produced leagues tables of school results which are supposed to help members of the community make judgements of the relative educational worth of individual schools. These are often meaningless, and at times, dubious and misleading.

Leagues tables are much better understood in England where they have been in place for a number of years. It is said that it is not unusual for schools there not to enter weaker students for subjects at all, or to encourage certain students to be sick on the days of the tests, for obvious reasons. At least one Grammar School (ie not a private school in the UK) near the top of the Leagues Tables in England employs a full time statistician to advise the Head on strategies to maximize its ranking. Interestingly this school did not do so well in the tables in earlier years of operation of the tables. "Later, when we understood how best to approach them", in the words of the school Head, "the school's ranking improved." While the Leagues Tables were intended to make visible under-performing teachers and schools, the outcome has put schools under pressure to "weed out" weaker students, and sometimes to encourage students to opt for less challenging subjects to improve the school's ranking. This will of course happen here if the system makes such steps desirable.

The comparison of the performance of schools is fiendishly difficult. For example, some selective schools take only students in the top 1 per cent of the population, academically. Other comprehensive schools take anyone (due to location, some are even negatively selective, that is, they don't get many bright ones at all). So ranking schools without consideration of the ability of the students entering Year 7 is unfair and unreasonable. Compare a school which takes a student in Year 7 who is performing at an average level, say ranking at a 50 or 60, and help and encourage them to get 80 with the school of a student ranked in the top 1 per cent of the population, who should presumably get 99, but who manages to get say 91. Which school deserves the most credit?

At SCEGGS, we worry about all our girls, those at the very top of the academic scale and those who are below it. We care about what will be the best for each of them - for their education now and for their careers in the future. We plan their education based on their needs, not on what will look good for us in the press. Excellent schools have always done this and always will. We need all political parties and indeed all the society to support every school committed to that goal, to do the best possible for the full range of their students. We need our political leaders to argue on the basis of just measures, and to help the media to report properly, not with dubious, misleading statistics.

The question which should be asked of any School, selective or comprehensive, is: "Have its students done as well or better/worse than the individuals' potential six or even 13 years ago would have led one to expect?"

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This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 12, 2003.

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About the Author

Jenny Allum is Head of the SCEGGS Darlinghurst.

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