Lies, damm lies, and targets.
In a few spare moments at lunchtime I had a look at one of my favourite blogs, Charlton Average, who incidentally also posts rather erudite comments on the newsshopper website from time to time. In his most recent post he referred to a practice called ‘managed moves’ which I had never heard of before. Very briefly, it is where a disruptive child is transferred to another school as an alternative to exclusion. One effect of this is that a schools exclusion figures would appear lower. I also read today an article about school league tables and a plea from head teachers not to place two much emphasis on them.
This got me thinking about the use and misuse of statistics and targets. Does all this information actually do any good? When I was choosing my secondary school in the dim and distant past there were no league tables I just had a look round and went with my gut feeling and when I was told no by the Council by Dad went into bat for me, appealed and got me in to the school of my choice. I have to say I always had the up most respect for my Dad for letting me chose the school which suited me best.
Anyway I digress, the head teachers complaint was that just looking at the % of students who got 5 A-C grades would not, on its own tell a parent how good a school is, and they were making a plea for people to take a look at some of the new measures which take into account other variables. To put it simply if school A has lots of academically gifted girls from middle class families, who stay at the school all the way through from year 7 to year 11 and school B has a transient population of boys with a high % of special needs from disadvantaged backgrounds, then it should come as no surprise that School A is higher up the league table. The aim of the somewhat cumbersomely titled Contextual Value Added measure is to try to make the figures more meaningful by looking at the difference the school makes to its pupils from when they arrive to when they leave taking into account things which the school had little or no control.
What the head teachers however failed to mention was the way in which borderline C/D grade students are guided towards easier subjects in year 10, year 11 registers are purged to decrease the size of the cohort and help is targeted at C/D grade students to the exclusion of other pupils in order to inflate the headline 5 A-C’s at GCSE figure and move the school up the league table.
This brings me on to the figures for exclusions now these are a minefield, and probably tell us even less about a school than exam results! For instance does a high rate of exclusion mean a school has a strong head teacher who is determined not to tolerate any disruptive behaviour which stops children learning or is it evidence of the appalling antics of an uncontrollable mass of lunatic youths? Does a low exclusion rate indicate evidence of a well ordered peaceful learning environment or does it show a school so cowed by political correctness and the need to ‘give kids a chance’ that it is failing to deal with unruly pupils.
When you then start to get targets introduced on the level of school exclusions, as happened in the 90’s then all sorts of bizarre and unfair practices start to crop up. The first is that pupils who have no right to be in a classroom with normal children can’t be kicked out because the school would look bad on paper, never mind the fact in reality the school is going down the toilet! When those targets are then also related to different groups within the school it gets even more stupid, you get the situation were let us say a teacher is assaulted by a pupil, if pupil is from group X they will be excluded because that group nationally is less likely to be excluded, whereas if the pupil is from group Y they won’t be because that group has a higher level of exclusion, I have even witnessed the situation where a Head teacher was overjoyed to be excluding a pupil from group X because it then gave her a chance to get rid of someone from group Y, because the % of group Y excluded would not now look so bad for the school.
On the other hand I would not want to return to the 80’s were these things went almost entirely unmonitored, I well remember a Catholic school I worked in at the time, in which the management would actively provoke children that they viewed as difficult to do things that would get them excluded. This was not because they were particularly difficult; just they were a bit more hard work than the rest of the kids because they had more problems. I have to say I found some Catholics rather unchristian.
So I don’t know the answer, yes people should have information about schools, yes it should be in context, but then does it become too complicated to be meaningful? Yes schools should be measured, accountable and set targets, but does that then lead to distortions which render all the information at best meaningless and at worst lead to damaging and unfair consequences?