The National Association of Head Teachers’ annual conference in Brighton captured headlines at the weekend, as heads voted overwhelmingly to ballot for a boycott of next year’s Sats tests if the Government fails to meet its demands on testing.

But just as interesting, in its way, was what Ed Balls told the conference about conventional school league tables.

These tables, of course, have played a large part in school life since the early 1990s. But, in a speech which was designed to placate the heads before they voted on the boycott plan, Mr Balls made a string of criticisms of the rankings.

He said: “The problem at the moment with our system of league tables for accountability is that whilst they may be easy for parents to understand, they measure only a narrow view of what the school actually achieves. The [current accountability system] measures only the progress of the average pupil; it does not measure the wider issues around wellbeing and around health and support. Nor does it give any credit for the role schools play in collaboration.  That’s why we need to reform our accountability system.”

He then highlighted Qualifications and Curriculum Authority research, first revealed in Education by Numbers, that schools spend an average of 10 hours a week in the months January to May in the run-up to the tests in year six, on test practice.

He said: If it’s the case that schools are spending 10 hours a week preparing for Sats, that’s not good teaching, it’s not good practice, it’s not what I want. At the same time, we cannot go back to the days when schools and parents and governors did not have information on what schools were doing, and that’s not what parents want, either.  I have said consistently I do not think the right thing to do is to remove the key stage 2 tests, but I have already said the system is not set in stone.”

 Then, Mr Balls responded to a question from a head teacher, Gail Larkin from Auriol Junior School in Epsom, Surrey, who asked if he could explain the educational value in continuing with the annual “public humiliation” of heads based on the publication of league tables.

Mr Balls replied: “I think you are right: school league tables give you a narrow view of what a school does. It does not look at the progress of the brightest children…or at the full range of activities which head teachers do every day. It does not look at context  or the wider things about pupils which mean they are happy and doing well.”

He added: “This [is] a system where the way to improve your performance is only to focus on the two to three children who are performing just below level four. That’s not what education is about, and that’s why we need to improve accountability.”

Mr Balls’s comments must be put in context. He was arguing against league tables in favour of a new “report card” system for schools, which is likely to be introduced to give parents a wider range of information on each institution than they currently receive. Alongside conventional exam results data will come measures of pupils’ “well-being” in each school and how it helps the most disadvantaged groups it educates. It will be, it seems to me, far from immune from some of the criticisms which have been levelled at league tables over the years.

But Mr Balls’s comments on those rankings remain extraordinary. Here was the man in charge of our schools admitting that league tables have encouraged them to focus extra effort on the small group of pupils around whom the rankings revolve – that is, to “game” the system – and that they may lead to excessive teaching to the test. Many will wonder why it has taken the Government this long to reach this view, point to the fact that this practice continues to go on, often with endorsement from some organisations very close to the Government, and argue that report cards are likely to replace one set of problems with others; they are effectively just another type of league table. That said, it was amazing to hear the criticisms from a leading member of a government which has long seemed wedded to the rankings, and other forms of statistics-based accountability which exist alongside them, as a centrepiece of its education policies.





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