Wednesday, 1 February 2012

School league tables and 'gameplaying'

The news that most vocational subjects have been removed from league tables of school performance at 15+ and 16+ has been a long time coming. Recommended by Alison Wolf's report on vocational education last year, and long trailed by Michael Gove's Department for Education (above), the argument against them staying there has always been that schools were 'gaming' the system by entering less academic children for subjects where they would maximise their GCSE-equivalent 'score'.

This rather misses the point that almost all numbers-based performance exercises have revealed since they started to proliferate in the 1970s. That's why successful businesses (Microsoft, for instance) don't use them. That's why the creaking and much-criticised Research Excellence Framework for universities, as well as NHS 'monitoring' exercises, often produce such perverse results.

The problem isn't with vocational qualifications. The problem is with the tables themselves - which is not to say that getting rid of them altogether would help us build any sort of idyll, as the ongoing crisis in many Welsh schools is demonstrating. The Welsh Assembly got rid of league tables in 2001. The decision has been accompanied by, shall we say, mixed results.

The point is a rather more general one than that. Set up a competitive system in which schools are judged one against the other, a maze of numbers that are often quite difficult to understand, and then (as the Government has just done) strip them of their contextual and 'value added' background, and any institution in the world will try to make itself look better by every 'legitimate' means at its disposal.

It's a little bit like the phenomena of tax evasion and avoidance. However hard the Revenue tries, they are always racing to patch up the tax system. They are spread thin, across an entire web of rules; but individuals with an interest in gaming that particular system have a much more specific, and much more urgent, incentive to punch a hole in their defences. So every year or two tax experts open yet another great bit gaping hole in the tax system's logic.

This particular push-me and pull-you is over. Today the cycle will begin all over again.

So will any messing with the league tables end 'gameplaying'? History and economics say: a great big 'no'.

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