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How NOT to choose a school! The misuse of school data to create "league tables"

I have been writing recently about the way in which to choose a secondary school, particularly if your child has additional needs. If you haven't seen them, there are 3 posts:

The Department for Education suggests that we should choose schools by

I am all in favour of visiting the school - that is really important. Talking to other parents can be useful, but beware of individual perceptions based on one parent's experience. School performance tables and Ofsted reports need to be handled with extreme care! In this post I am going to look at why school performance tables ("league tables") are not good indicators of school quality and in a following post I will look at the problems with using Ofsted reports as a guide to a school for your child.

As a starting point let's hear from one of the most respected sources of education data and analysis: In a post yesterday (6/12/23) FFT said that "school-level statistics are often (and wrongly) interpreted as measures of school quality." Absolutely!

Here is how it happens: In a secondary school, the league tables are based on a measure called Progress 8 (P8), which, as its name implies, calculates the progress of a student from when they left primary school compared with other students in that year group nationally. A score of zero means that the students are in line with the national average; positive is good; negative is bad.

But this is an average across all the students in Year 11 in a school. So schools want to have as many students as possible who will make really good progress. Nationally, students with additional needs (SEND) made much less progress than students without SEND ( The same is true of students whose families are economically disadvantaged and also those students in care (and any other category of disadvantage you care to mention). They all make less progress than their not-disadvantaged counterparts - they find it harder to make that level of progress due to their disadvantage - obvious really. So the more students that you have with SEND or additional needs of any kind the more difficult it is for a school is to have a positive P8 score and therefore to rank highly in the league tables. Recently this has been compounded by attendance - there is a strong correlation between attendance and performance at GCSE and you are more likely to be absent if you are economically disadvantaged or have additional needs - so it is a "double whammy".

So our current system creates a huge incentive for schools to reduce the number of students with additional needs of any kind. No allowance is made in the league tables for student context so the "best" approach for a school is to recruit and support as few students with educational disadvantage as possible!

What does this look like in reality? Returning to a graph that I created for an earlier post - this shows the huge variation in the population of students with SEND across Lancashire secondary schools:

Schools with lower percentages of students with additional needs are far more likely to ride high in the league tables - it is obvious. Conversely, if a school has lots of students with additional needs then the school's average progress is going to be lower and their league table position is going to be lower. But that absolutely does not mean that the education that you offer your students is going to be any worse, just that they have more students who find it harder to make progress. They may well have students who achieve the highest possible grades and their teaching of all students may well be absolutely amazing and it may well be coupled with care for each individual student, whatever their needs. You can't tell any of that from the performance tables - in fact they may well put you off the best school for your child.

So performance tables ("league tables") are a highly suspect way of choosing a school. Don't use them.

Is there a better approach to this misuse of school data? This is probably the subject of a another post, but historically performance measures took into account the context of the students (known as contextual value added or CVA). It was removed some years ago because it was considered that schools lowered their aspirations of students with additional needs or who were disadvantaged. The problem now is that the stakes are so high: secondary schools are driven by their Progress 8 figure as it informs Ofsted judgements and league table positions. So there is no incentive at all for a secondary school to be seen to be attractive to students who face educational challenges. And yet it is those students who need really good schools most!

James Harris

As always, I am very happy to discuss any of these issues further and to support any families in working with their child's secondary school - please see for details.

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