James McEnaney: @NicolaSturgeon must be held accountable for school league tables

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says that the first minister cannot dodge responsibility for the return of school league tables

TOMORROW morning, on the orders of the first minister, the Scottish Government will reintroduce primary school league tables in Scotland.

The data behind the rankings is expected first thing in the morning, accompanied by a 'performance improvement plan' (God help us). In the afternoon we will be treated to a statement (expect the usual heady mix of arrogance, ignorance and obfuscation) telling us why the publication of this information is so important.

This means that we will soon know the percentage of children achieving expected levels in reading, writing and numeracy for every school in Scotland, thus providing the necessary information to rank schools according to what may very well be the crudest possible measure of educational performance.

This is very bad news for Scotland's kids. League tables were abolished in this country more than a decade ago precisely because they do much more harm than good and - despite the fact that people who know nothing about education are often keen on ranking schools - nothing has changed.

Such systems inevitably lead to a narrow and reductive view of education, with annual, acrimonious debates about which schools are "failing".

For the people in power, being seen to be 'doing something' becomes infinitely more important than doing the right thing. Petty point-scoring and short-term, knee-jerk responses take precedence over serious solutions and, as always, it is teachers and their pupils who are caught in the crossfire.

For the people in power, being seen to be 'doing something' becomes infinitely more important than doing the right thing.

League tables also risk magnifying existing problems by encouraging parents to move their children to "better" schools. This hands a huge advantage to better-off families (who are more likely to be able to work the system or, if it comes to it, simply move house) and encourages competition in a system where co-operation and collaboration is the real force for good.

Crucially, at a school level, the publication of this data always – always - becomes incredibly 'high-stakes'. This means that teaching and learning come to be focused on boosting rankings, sometimes at the expense of everything else. Teachers come under enormous pressure and the educational experiences of children are inevitably narrowed.

The Australian NAPLAN system – which, like the SNP's proposals, is heavily dependent upon standardised testing - is a good example of this, with investigations finding that it has had "largely negative" effects due in no small part to "the desire to be ranked highly" in league tables.

Closer to home, Professor Mark Priestley of Stirling University warns against creating a system where "perverse incentives" lead to "the needs of the school" being placed before the educational needs of students.

But none of this seems to matter to the SNP, which continues to insist that politically-motivated standardised testing, combined with the generation, collection and publication of "school by school" data, will somehow resolve problems created by cuts to teacher numbers, fundamental problems with the curriculum, the shocking failures of bodies like Education Scotland, the incessant politicisation of classrooms and, above all, the devastating effects of poverty.

Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are simply taking the people of Scotland for mugs

The government will no doubt continue to insist – in increasingly desperate tones - that the creation of league tables is not the intention, expecting us to believe that it is just an unfortunate, unintended and unimportant consequence of their crusade to improve education in our country. Don’t believe a word of it.

Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney are simply taking the people of Scotland for mugs, on the one hand insisting that they are not interested in "crude league tables" while on the other pursuing policies that will, without a shadow of a doubt, lead directly to that outcome.

The line between PR and outright dishonesty is a fine one and this government has tip-toed right up to it.

Sturgeon doesn't have the luxury of divorcing herself from the direct consequences of her decisions, particularly when she conceded the link between her policies and the publication of school rankings more than a year ago. That the final publication of new league tables will be carried out by the press rather than the government itself makes not a bit of difference – this government, and specifically this First Minister, remains 100 per cent responsible. 

But why are they doing this, in spite of constant warnings and a wealth of opposing evidence?

To answer that question, it is important to understand that a league table culture appeals to desperate politicians precisely because it shifts the focus, and the blame, away from barely-competent governments.

The problems caused by the poor decisions of ministers are transformed into condemnation of this or that "underperforming school" or "weak teacher", distracting people from the real issues and letting the people who are really responsible (like Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney) off the hook.

That would surely suit a first minister who has not only made wild and undeliverable promises - such as completely closing the poverty-related attainment gap in Scottish education - but has also staked her entire reputation on her record in education.

League table culture appeals to desperate politicians precisely because it shifts the focus, and the blame, away from barely-competent governments.

The problem is that, once again, her approach means putting politics before pupils, and our kids deserve better than to be sacrificed like pawns on the Holyrood chess board. 

It's time for the SNP to stop the cheap, rhetorical sleight of hand, admit that they are indeed reintroducing league tables as part of their educational reforms, and allow the public - including SNP voters and members - to make a fully-informed decision about whether this is something they wish to support.

The first minister has asked, explicitly, to be judged on her record in improving Scottish education, so let's hold her to that: Nicola Sturgeon is now directly responsible for the re-establishment of primary school league tables, and she must be held accountable.

Picture courtesy of Patrick Q

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Mon, 12/12/2016 - 21:11

James McEnaney really should get his facts right or is it just another case of lying journalists. Scotlands schools are no worse than any other uk country in fact in maths and English we are better unfortunately science lets us down


Tue, 12/13/2016 - 11:06

James McEnaney will be aware that Scottish Labour are being very vocal in their criticism of this. I wonder if he is aware of this: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/education/wales-colour-coded-school-ta... and whether he thinks he may be playing into the hands of their hypocrisy?

ian gould

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 21:12

making bullets for Baillie and gray to fire

Ian Clark

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 13:01

Very good opinion piece.

Unfortunately going by the first two (three?) comments - it seems that the article has been misunderstood. The article, amongst other things, questions the value of, motivation for (and hypocrisy behind?) - what will become in reality - the reintroduction of league tables in primaries. Undoubtedly an important issue. This article appears to have become conflated in some people's minds with the recent unionist 'SNP bad' PISA narrative.

The piece is not about PISA results (at least not directly). Perhaps the headline caused the confusion, but the body of the article leaves no doubt about the subject matter.

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