November 2, 2010 12:01 am

League tables help schools to improve

League tables have improved school performance, with pupils at the lowest achieving schools benefiting the most from publicly available rankings. Releasing public data “raises average school performance”, a detailed new study has found.

The report, from Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation, compared schools in Wales – where league tables ceased to be published in 2001 – with those in England, where they are still produced. Prepared by Professor Simon Burgess, Deborah Wilson and Jack Worth, the paper estimated that pupils at the average Welsh school would have done better by two GCSE grades per pupil had the tables not been dropped.

“We have shown that public accountability matters a great deal for school performance,” said Prof Burgess. Schools in both countries have improved in recent years. But, after controlling for other differences, the paper found the average Welsh student may now get a C or D in one GCSE qualification rather than the A or B that they would have received had league tables continued to be published.

This is a “substantial” effect, researchers say, of similar impact to a 30 per cent change in class size. “When you take [league tables] away, which is what the Welsh government did in 2001, performance deteriorates” said Prof Burgess.

The effect is not uniformly distributed. The top Welsh schools were largely unaffected. The effect was strongest for the lowest-performing schools, where it was worth three GCSE grades per pupil.

The paper concludes that it is “unlikely” that parental choice is what allows league tables to improve results. Rather, local authorities, headteachers and governors feel less pressure to improve their performance when their schools’ failings are not being advertised. Prof Burgess said that “without league tables, it is much easier for low-performing schools to hide”.

The researchers say the effect was not caused by schools’ refocusing away from the goals encouraged by the league tables, and also deals with a common criticism of league tables – that they encourage social segregation.

The researchers found “no evidence that the policy change has had a significant impact on either sorting by ability or by socio-economic status”.

Leighton Andrews, Welsh education minister, said: “In Wales over the decade of devolution we have implemented most of the changes the profession wanted to see. So we don’t have league tables. We will see in December when the international comparisons of school performance are reported in the OECD’s PISA survey whether that approach has paid off.”

Publishing yet more comparable results would be “an extremely cost-effective policy for raising attainment and reducing inequalities in attainment,” the paper says.

Michael Gove, the education secretary for England, said in a speech last month that, “as well as reforming exams to make them more rigorous we need to change league tables to make them more effective. One thing I’m determined to do is publish all the exam data held by the government.”

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