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Why ‘league tables’ of schools are a failure

By Ian Keese - posted Friday, 21 August 2009

Those who support publishing “league tables” that rank schools by results often take the high moral ground by arguing that to do so is in the interests of the disadvantaged students and that teachers only oppose them so they can hide their failures.

For instance, on August 13 The Australian reported that “Julia Gillard is to crash through opposition to publication of data on school performance, insisting that the move will allow her to target underperforming schools with extra resources” and she “dismissed complaints that the data would lead to the production of simplistic league tables”.

In fact what Julia Gillard said in her speech the day before was far more measured. What she stressed was the importance of adequate information to address disadvantage:


If you said to the department, “Bring me a list of those thousand schools where the kids at them come from low income families, which teach many Indigenous children, which teach many children with disabilities, which teach many children from migrant and refugee backgrounds and which teach kids whose parents themselves did not succeed at school. Could you bring me that list?”, the answer would be no … So piece by piece we set about getting those transparency measures so that not only we, the government, but the community can see where educational attainment is, where disadvantage is, and act to make a difference.

Of course ideological bias in reporting is not new, but there is something far more critical to educational debate here - it is the sloppy thinking that fails to distinguish between “underperforming” schools and “disadvantaged" schools and treats the two as if identical. On the contrary, there are some schools in disadvantaged areas that are high performing and there would be some academically selective public schools and wealthy private schools that are under-performing if one took into account the unrealised potential of some of their student intake.

A true high achieving school is the one that takes the children in their care, begins with their social and economic situation, responds to their needs and then sends them out into the community better able to cope with the modern world. If the measure of an achieving school is the difference it makes to a child’s life prospects - how much value is added to that child’s education - then some of the highest achieving schools are in the public and Catholic systems in the outer suburbs of our major metropolitan cities, the so called “disadvantaged” schools.

State governments already collect detailed statistical analysis of both inputs and outputs to allow them to determine the true high performing schools. Any “league table”, which focuses only on the outputs or end results, is incapable of actually measuring improved performance. Julia Gillard’s compromise of grouping like schools as a way around this is still flawed. While it may identify a high performing “disadvantaged” school among similar schools, it will still be labelling that school in the public’s mind. How many middle class parents want to send their children to a school in a disadvantaged area, no matter how well that school is performing in transforming the lives of its students?

Those who push for league tables have little interest in actually improving the outcomes for students and especially for disadvantaged students. Who are those leading the push for league tables and why?

The media is one, using the slogan “freedom of information”, but not heeding the other side of the coin - the need to actually do the proper research and to take responsibility for damage they cause.


A classic example was where the Sydney Telegraph confused a score of 50 in a University Entrance Ranking, which meant the middle or average student, with a pass or fail mark. The school’s photo of all the Year 12 students was on its front page and all these students were labelled as failures. The paper was happy to name and shame and then move on to their next big issue. The media can offer little to actually improving schools apart from slogans such as “back to basics”; it is governments who have the power to positively influence what happens in schools.

The other group calling for league tables are adherents of the “free market” with the slogan of “educational choice”. With increasing government control over curriculum, examinations and now teacher registration, what choice that is actually available is very much around the edges and the actual quality of education provided is usually not really the central factor. When parents do make a choice it is often not on the quality of the education provided but on the basis of religious belief or social prestige attached to a particular institution. This is one area where meaningful data on performance as opposed to results could be instructive.

Also the majority of families have no effective choice or make a deliberate choice to go to their local public school or Catholic parochial school. These systems have teams of educational administrators who have the knowledge and skills to analyse and act on quality data, and who take their responsibilities as the major educational providers in Australia very seriously.

Certainly as the federal government takes increasing responsibility for education there will be a need to ensure the consistency and comparability of the data collected by the states. There is already the expertise to analyse the data to identify the high performing schools across a wide range of socio-economic environments. The next stage is to determine the qualities possessed by the high performing schools that achieve this and how to replicate these qualities in similar schools so all students have the greatest opportunity to succeed.

This whole process should be above politics and done by a statutory authority with representation from educators, parents and the wider community which would then make public recommendations. The implementation would then be up to the government of the day.

A quality teacher sees the “failure” of a student as a failure in her teaching - she did not find the key to unlock that particular student’s potential. The focus of the federal government needs to be on ensuring that educational resources are directed at ensuring that all students realise their potential. This requires sophisticated analysis and carefully directed response to identified needs, and has nothing to do with “league tables” of winners and losers.

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About the Author

Ian Keese has degrees in Science and the Arts. He has been a secondary school history teacher and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators. He lives in Melbourne and writes on history and education or anything else in which he becomes interested.

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