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League Tables Damage Life Chances

 

The Iniquity of League Tables – A spirited plea to parents to look beyond the statistics when assessing a school…


Summer has brought the latest round of examination results with photographs of elated students bursting forth from the newspapers as a generation of young people head out to make their way in the world.

Whilst the students bask in the sunshine of their results, the sum of the same set of grades, recalculated into the swiftly published league tables casts a long shadow on how schooling and schools are perceived. Throughout my career as Headmaster of a comprehensive school, a state grammar school and now of a leading HMC independent school, my view on the culture of league tables has not warmed. I remain a fierce critic of league tables, belying the fact that my school will, again, be ranked near the top, and stand in defence of education for personal character.

 

League tables are damaging as there is simply so much more to a great education. Tables can only measure half of what constitutes a great education – what matters far more is character and preparation for adult life.

 

In my view these tables undermine the best of a child’s school days. The drive to climb the exam charts detracts from full and competitive sports programmes, termly school productions and concerts, regular debating programmes and Model United Nations, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award or Combined Cadet Force, a thriving House system or schemes to develop leadership and wider cultural opportunities. These activities are the core of education at my school and help form a young person’s character and prepare them for a happy and successful adult life. None of these are valued one iota by league tables.

Whilst the 21st century brings new and unique challenges to our world, Kipling’s 105 year old poem ‘If’, written as advice to his son, points to timeless human qualities of humility, balance, perseverance and aspiration. I sum all of that up as character – something given no weight in any league tables. The league tables could never measure how a school engenders preparedness for adult life, a sense of fun, the strength of friendships or of pastoral care. League tables are blind to the qualities of leadership and team work developed on the sports fields, to the creativity students have explored in the school’s arts programmes. Crucially, just over a hundred years since the start of ‘the war to end all wars’ and at a time of further international tragedy in the Middle East, league tables can tell you nothing about the moral compass of students in the school.

The boldness of many schools who have opted out of league tables is admirable, but does retraction resolve the issue?

 

Parents do need to know levels of academic performance and there is no doubt that exam results secure life opportunities. League tables give this information, but it is the culture they engender which is so damaging.

 

Accountability drives behaviour and schools are driven to cull character-building and enriching activities to drive grades up one notch and thereby climb the league table ladders. A child needs to secure results to open doors but they need the character to make the most of those opportunities. Results matter, but schools need to communicate just as loudly that not all that is precious in an education can be ranked and measured.

 

An article written for School House Magazine
Shaun Fenton
Headmaster

 

 

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