Head teacher urges parents to look beyond 'headline' figures

February 01 2013
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League tables for secondary schools are at best over-simplistic and at worst seriously misleading for parents, a Bristol head teacher has said.

Head teacher urges parents to look beyond 'headline' figures

League tables for secondary schools are at best over-simplistic and at worst seriously misleading for parents, a Bristol head teacher has said. Dr Helen Holman

As a result, the exodus in recent years to schools outside Bristol and to the independent sector may not have been necessary for many families, it is claimed.

Dr Helen Holman, head of Orchard School Bristol, right, said the performance figures released in January for schools only paint a clear picture if parents dig well beyond the “headline” figure.

The “headline” figure highlights how many students achieve five or more “good” passes at GCSE,  including English and maths. However, evidence on the department for education’s own website shows that children of similar ability in Year 7 often achieve similar academic outcomes with choice of school not always a significant factor. The pattern continues for middle and lower-achieving children.

In the Bristol area, schools at opposite ends of the league tables can point to upwards of 90 per cent success for children who were high achievers at primary school. The explanation for the wide gap in the “headline” figure is due to some schools having higher numbers of high achievers incoming from Year 6.

Dr Holman said that parents needed to look closely at the likely outcome for their own child, not for an entire year group.

She said: “We want to stress to parents that the figures they should look at are those which relate to their own child, not a whole year group. Parents are looking at the stark contrasts in the headline figure when the reality is that their individual child will likely do just as well wherever he or she goes.

“For example, for high achieving children, the vast majority will get five or more good passes at virtually all local schools.

“Yet in Bristol we see families bussing their children to semi-rural schools to achieve no better an outcome than if they had stayed at a Bristol school.”

She added: “As a result, we have fine teachers in city schools who are being told they are doing a poor job when in reality, they are doing as well as, if not better, than their counterparts elsewhere.”

Dr Holman said while she welcomed the inclusion of “prior attainment” figures, the Government needed to look at a better measure for its headline figure – or drop it. She said: “The headline figure only makes sense if all schools have identical intakes – which clearly they don’t.”

Sarah Baker, head teacher of Redland Green School, said: “I agree that headlines are simplistic and only tell part of the story about students’ performance in a school. Although our intake is different, we have a very high proportion of higher achieving pupils, like Orchard we analyse our students’ results carefully to find out which groups of students have done well. Furthermore, like all headteachers, we continue to focus on where we need to narrow the gap in performance between groups of students.”

Bristol University professor Simon Burgess, who was instrumental in persuading the Government to include prior attainment in the published figures, said: “The new information compares the performance of schools for children of different abilities and has the potential to be much more useful to parents than the simple average.”

Bristol North West MP Charlotte Leslie, who sits on the Education Select Committee, said: “These things take time to bed down, but already this new measure is uncovering the excellent teaching that is going on in our schools.”