The problems with school league tables

I was back home over Christmas and, a few days in, I was given a reminder of the education system in England. The image above shows the front cover of the local newspaper. On page 18, every school in the local area is listed in a league table, showing progress scores in maths, reading and writing, along with the percentage of students who made the expected grade in each of these subject areas.

The issue is not the data. Data certainly serves a purpose. I won’t even complain about standardised tests (my school undertakes annual International Schools Assessments and I don’t really have any complaints about them). The problem in England is that Year 6 SATs tests are used to compare schools and make judgements. I’m sure that other education systems also use test data in the same high pressure, high stakes way. So, what’s wrong with this?


League tables allow for easy comparisons. A school’s success is judged on its scores in comparison to other schools. Type ‘primary school league tables’ into Google and you’ll see the word ‘compare’ in almost every first page result. These comparisons put schools in competition with each other. The issue with this is that schools and teachers can thrive through collaboration. Collaboration and competition are not compatible.

“A system that sets people against each other fundamentally misunderstands the dynamics that drive achievement. Education thrives on partnership and collaboration – within schools, between schools, and with other groups and organisations.”

Sir Ken Robinson, 2015

What is the purpose of education?

This question is worth pondering. The purpose is perhaps complex and perhaps even debatable. However, I don’t think that anyone would say that the sole purpose of primary education is achievement in maths and English. This is just one tiny part of what we aim to achieve. If SATs are not the purpose, why are they the judgement? It’s worth considering what these tests don’t measure. Dan McCabe started to make a list on Twitter. What would you add to this? Schools that achieved lower results in SATs may well have done a much better job of nurturing creativity, passion, kindness, etc.


School contexts

The league tables do not take into account the socio-economic contexts of the schools. Even within one local area, the children and families can come from various backgrounds and face different challenges. Some of these challenges affect their learning and progress. For example, students in deprived areas typically underperform in comparison to students from privileged backgrounds.

Mental health

These tests are a huge cause of stress, anxiety and upset for many teachers. Worse than that, they are hugely stressful for the students too. In a survey carried out by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), 87% of teachers agreed that SATs tests cause a decline in students’ mental health, self-confidence and wellbeing. Every year, there are stories of sleepless nights, sobbing and meltdowns among students. I would argue that the tests themselves are not to blame. Students usually take many tests throughout school with no issues. The problem, like I said, is the high stakes and pressure that come with Year 6 SATs.

Curriculum time

Students often lose their broad and balanced curriculum due to the pressure of performing in maths and English. Referring back to the purpose of education, perhaps the lower-achieving schools gave much more curriculum time to non-core subjects, allowing more ways for students to develop and shine.

One cohort, one test, one day

Finally, remember that every statistic in the league table is based on one cohort of children and their performance on one day, in one test. The results are not always a true reflection of the child’s understanding or the school’s effectiveness. It is common to underachieve or even over-achieve on such one-off occasions. Such tests are nothing more than a snapshot.

To be clear, I am not against teachers and schools being accountable. Of course we should be! I’m just not convinced that these league tables are an appropriate judgement. So, how should we be judged? How can we measure our effectiveness/growth? In what ways are standardised tests useful? Your comments, as always, are appreciated. Please keep the discussion going.

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