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UK league tables ‘punish and reward’ the wrong secondary schools

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More than 51 percent of "underperforming" schools in England would see their position on national league tables change by over 500 places if student background was considered. Source: Shutterstock

UK league tables do not reflect England’s secondary schools’ true performance as they fail to account for pupils’ challenging backgrounds, according to a new report.

More than half (51 percent) of “underperforming” schools across England would see their position on national league tables change by over 500 places if factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, English as an additional language (EAL), special educational needs (SEN), free school meal status (FSM) and residential deprivation were considered, the latest research by think tank Northern Powerhouse Partnership and University of Bristol shows.

“The League Tables and data that we use to judge schools are often more a measure of the school’s intake than the quality of teaching, learning and real progress being made in that school. Indeed, Ofsted themselves often reward these same measures, and therefore a school’s intake, when giving their judgments as headteachers and others have warned,” commented Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central and member of the Education Select Committee.


“This independent Fair Secondary School Index uses much more detailed data and analysis to arrive at fairer and deeper understandings of what makes a good school, often turning League Table standings on their heads. We can see from this that some schools operating in the most challenging contexts are doing an outstanding job. Other schools that may have previously escaped scrutiny actually require support,” added Powell .

Analysing 2018 data from all 3,165 state-maintained secondary schools in England, the study compared ‘Progress 8’ – the headline measure used by the UK Department of Education to assess progress children make between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school – with an “adjusted” Fair Secondary School Index, which includes contextual measure. Progress 8 is based on pupils’ performance in eight qualifications – English and maths, up to three subjects from the Ebacc list, and students’ three highest scores from a range of other qualifications, including GCSEs and approved non-GCSEs.

Academic literature and practitioners have argued that while Progress 8 accounts for school intake attainment differences in pupils’ Key Stage 2 (KS2) test scores, it should not ignore pupil background when comparing schools.


TES noted how the comparison revealed that Progress 8 was penalising Northern schools for teaching pupils from underperforming groups.

“In the North East, for example, schools on average were ranked 361 places higher using the adjusted measure. In the North West, schools of average were ranked 107 places higher,” the report said. Two schools in the North also achieved top ten positions in the adjusted measure.

Conversely, London schools would drop by 184 places on average in the adjusted measure, followed by the South East, where schools would drop by 128 places on average.

However, London would still hold the highest average of rank of secondary schools in the country.

Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford is the best school in England, according to the Fair Secondary School Index.

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