School league tables and other school statistics can cause problems when they are poorly understood and inaccurately interpreted, warns Peter Kent, who here issues advice on the right way to use educational statistics

I have been turned into a football. As I complete my ninth summer as a headteacher, I am increasingly convinced that my job has less to do with education and more to do with the realities of running a football club.

‘Blimey, you must like reading!’ — I heard these words regularly in mid-August as I trudged to the newsagent’s desk to pay for my armful of newspapers. I had to check the different league tables produced by every newspaper after A-level and GCSE results. You might well ask: why bother? Wouldn’t it be best to show a lofty disapproval for the tables by ignoring them? Having tried this approach, I know that it is fraught with difficulties (the less you know about what is written about your school, the more vulnerable you are to ambush from a variety of groups).

Each newspaper uses different methods for calculating their tables. Hence the only way to counter the parent or ‘educational expert’ who berates you for the school’s poor performance in one newspaper’s ranking, is to retaliate with the school’s strong showing in a different publication. My school recently managed to be highly placed in one table, 250th in another and not even make it into a third.

Unreliable statistics
All this means is that if performance is measured by points score or by capped points score or by percentage of A* grades or by the 101 other methods that newspapers continue to dream up, then is likely to generate a range of differing results. Most people outside education are likely to take the particular table produced by their newspaper as gospel.

Unsupportive governing bodies or LAs have been known to use one poor set of results plus a less than positive Ofsted inspection to ease school leaders out of their jobs. We seem to be creating a culture within education where headteachers are only as good as their last set of results. Sounds familiar? At least when the pundits at the end of Match of the Day tell us that, ‘At the end of the day the league tables do not lie,’ they are broadly correct.

Educational statistics, on the other hand, can be made to say almost anything that officials would like them to say. What applies to league tables applies equally to the data found in RAISEonline. To be fair to Ofsted, it recognises this and insists that schools can only be judged on the basis of face-to-face contact during an inspection.

Premier league approach
Most other groups in society, including politicians, seem to be heading towards the premier league approach of basing all judgements around a plethora of statistics and floor targets. If you think that league tables don’t lie, you haven’t spent much time in schools recently.

It is perhaps no coincidence that school league tables are moving closer and closer to the back of the newspaper. In my copy of The Times, only a few pages separated the GCSE league tables from the start of the sports section. We can expect even this division to end, as school league tables will take their rightful place after the latest transfer speculation and before a summary of last night’s results. Soon headteachers will produce appropriate quotes: ‘If you ask me, the lads and girls done extra brilliant. It was an exam of two halves but at the end of the day they done fantastic.’

Dodgy decisions
We are all familiar with the manager interviewed on Match of the Day who describes the ref’s decisions as ‘a disgrace’ before going on to moan: ‘It was never a penalty – at the end of the season that decision will cost us.’ We now have an educational equivalent of the dodgy penalty decision. I refer of course to this year’s Key Stage 2 and 3 SATs marking. Rather than accepting things have been a complete disaster, ministers have persisted with the touching claim that ‘the standard of marking is at least as good as last year.’

Leaving aside last year’s results, it would seem not unreasonable to ask why, if the standard of marking was so good, the test-marking agency have been dismissed and the National Assessment Agency have battened down the hatches in readiness for a record number of re-marks. Despite widespread derision about dodgy marking and rushed jobs, ministers have allowed results to be published and, even worse, to be used in individual school’s RAISEonline reports. Instead of ‘Come off it, Ref, that was never a penalty,’ many of us are now entitled to shout from the touchline, ‘Call yourself a marker – that was never a Level 5! Send him off!’

Perhaps most chilling of all is the chairman’s vote of confidence. Once we hear on the news that a manager at the latest troubled premiership club has received the ‘full support’ of their chairman, we know that they are doomed. Surely this could never happen in education. Yet with the plethora of confusing educational statistics, National Challenge targets and dodgy marking leading to negative headlines for some schools, that is exactly what chairs of governors and directors of education are being forced to do. While these declarations of support are sincere, they may be the final gloomy piece of evidence that the realities of education now have most in common with the realities of football.

Weight of expectation
We are seeing an emerging consensus that headteachers are almost identical to football managers, but without the salaries or job security. And like them, we are judged on results and often carry an impossible weight of expectation. While we both have loyal groups of supporters, in each case the people with real power expect us to work miracles and to work them quickly. Both groups know that in the end they have to deal with real people and that sometimes this takes time, but time seems to be the one thing that so-called external experts are unwilling to offer.

Perhaps we will look back and wonder how we allowed something as precious and complex as education to be reduced to this level. For now, here’s to a great academic year for us all! Hope you get no ‘votes of confidence’ and that at the end of the day the lads and girls do extra brilliant.

Peter Kent is headteacher at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby