League tables: are they helpful and, more to the point, are they healthy?

Discouraging children from comparing their achievements with those of their peers is one of the biggest challenges parents and teachers face. We work hard to ensure that all pupils celebrate their success in the context of identifying their own potential. As young people grow up and mature, it is vital that we help them to build up self-esteem and acquire an inner strength to tackle the ever-increasing demands placed upon them. Pupils should be proud of their successes and achievements, so that they have faith and confidence in themselves. It is not necessarily a good thing for them constantly to measure themselves, or be measured, against the performance of others.

Every year, I wince slightly when league tables come out, calculating schools’ results and ranking them. Is this publicity helpful, and more to the point is it healthy? What concerns me most about league tables is that they do not always tell the whole story about the school, the individuals, the pupils, and people behind the statistics published. Equally, league tables can be confusing and even misleading, as they do not all use the same measure of comparison. In some instances, only the top two grades may have been used when comparing the performance of schools, and as a result, parents may make unfair assumptions about an institution, without considering the wider context, or indeed the breadth and spread of results.

Most schools will do all they can to ensure that a child fulfils his or her potential. It is innate in any good teacher to want to bring the very best out in a child. League tables do not reflect the starting point of any given pupil. Schools that are super selective, schools, for example, that reject applicants who fail to hit the target academically in selection tests at the tender age of 10, should inevitably be high up in the league tables. What these tables do not measure, however, is the progress made, the wider distance travelled and the value-added aspect of those pupils who are perhaps late developers. Schools that have succeeded in helping such pupils fulfil their potential beyond expectation, may not necessarily make the top places in any league tables, but they are no less worthy, no less impressive than those institutions that do. League tables do not measure accurately the distance travelled between start and finish point, the incredible uplift in the achievements of its pupils that many schools are able to provide. Furthermore, league tables do not predict the future path of any child and how successful they will be, given the strong grounding, in terms of academic and personal development, a school may have provided.

Measuring the success of pupils must transcend mere letters and numbers. GCSE and A Level results alone should not define the worth of a pupil, or indeed a school. What matters is that a school holistically enables all its pupils to do and give of their very best, grow into the person they want to be, in an environment where they can be true to themselves, and those around them. No school has a monopoly on the term ‘academic’.  All schools are ‘academic’, regardless of how they rank in league tables. The process of education is not a precise science, and league tables in themselves, are not a fair reflection of a school’s worth, let alone the overall attainments of its pupils. We should not be defined by letters and numbers. What matters is how a school has helped to shape and prepare an individual for their next steps, for their future. Natasha Devon MBE rightly pointed out last summer that results “don’t tell you anything about all those little moments that leave an indelible mark on pupils intellectually and emotionally. They simply can’t quantify what has been ‘learned’.”

Mental wellbeing and mental health are key priorities for us all today, when, according to a recent survey conducted by the charity Action for Children, one in three young people suffer from mental health troubles. Theresa May has announced new plans to alleviate this problem and the teaching of resilience is to become part of the national curriculum. A poignant and telling statement in this debate comes from Julie Bentley, Chief Executive, Action for Children, who says, “pressure arising from school work and social media can be too much for young people”.

Therefore, we have to consider whether by publicly comparing every cohort’s results with those of another, we are perpetuating a culture that is damaging the wellbeing of our children. Next year, we hope to join a number of other schools in not submitting our results to the national press. We no longer want to feed the frenzy of results comparison and participate in what Natasha Devon calls the media’s seasonal ‘soap opera’ of results. I have been so immensely proud of the results my classes, and those of the schools I have worked in, have achieved. “Success means doing the best with what we have” – wise words from Zig Zaglar. So let us celebrate what we have, for it is the best our pupils can give us.  Let us help our young people to identify and nurture their talents and abilities, feel that all-important sense of worth, take pride in who they are, and rightly applaud their achievements.