League Tables and their Distortion of the Purpose of Education

This week, the secondary performance data – league tables – were released. Every year, we hear dissenting voices about the purpose of these tables. Every year, they are published without due regard for the concerns of many as to their validity.

It begs the question “what is the point of them”?

League tablesIt begs a further question that should pre-empt any decisions about publishing league tables – what is the purpose of education?

There’s been plenty said about parent choice when it comes to secondary transfer but what about young peoples’ right to choose what they study?

If we all agree that one of the fundamental aims of education is to support young people to achieve (and to be well), then one has to question the validity of a system that forces students to take certain courses for the benefit of performance data rather than the needs and the interests of the individual child.

The fact that this year’s league tables are so vastly different from last year’s, due to changes in the examination systems, makes a further farce of this data.

In the government’s own document “2014 School and College Performance Tables: Statement of Intent” the introduction states that,

“Performance tables continue to sit at the heart of the accountability framework. They focus the debate on standards and strengthen the accountability of schools and colleges, providing a reliable and accessible source of comparative information on pupil attainment and progress.”


Particularly this year, the performance tables are neither reliable nor accessible. A firm knowledge of education policy is required to make any sense of them. By its own admission, the government states that this is all about attainment, not achievement. It’s all about standards.

2015 tablesWhy is this? Is it because the absolute purpose of education is to attain certain grades (grades that we all know some young people aren’t capable of attaining, thereby leading to failure for many) or is it more to do with the fact that other vital areas of achievement are less quantifiable, though not less worthy?

The changes to the examination system have made a complete mess of the league tables but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is how these league tables direct education, all too frequently placing the needs of the institution before the needs of the young person. These tables corrupt and coerce schools and teachers alike, and distort the whole purpose of education.

Nobody is denying that there were problems with the modular approach to examinations.

The farcical nonsense of making a young person retake an examination having achieved a ‘B’ grade because the school had predicted an ‘A’ – and thereby they needed the young person to retake for the sake of the league tables is utterly ridiculous.

Exam taker

So too is the perpetual taking and retaking of exams that impacts significantly on the teaching and learning time available.

Teaching to the test happened. It’s a fact. Young people had their entire education funnelled by what was expected to be on an examination paper, not channelled by their interest in a subject or their desire to learn.

An end of module system also has its faults. That’s why they were abandoned when ‘O’ Levels disappeared. Too frequently, these exams were a judgement on how well a young person could retain and analyse facts rather than identifying and lauding their real learning.

Whilst we’re on this subject, if these exams “prepare young people for adult life” why are they never referred to once a young person has left school? Who, over the age of 20, has ever been asked about what they achieved or studied for GCSE? We reiterate once more that the CBI has clearly stated that in a time when the school leaving age is 18, these GCSEs are superfluous. They’ve also said that other skills – life skills, core competencies such as communication skills, innovation, imagination and the ability to work as a team member are as, if not more, important to potential employers.



Why can’t there be an examination system similar to the one employed for passing a driving test? You wouldn’t place a child in a driving seat if they weren’t ready, and we all know that once that test is passed we all learn to drive for real – with knowledge, skill and experience. That’s when the real learning happens.

It’s worth noting that the world’s leading education systems have never published tables and would never do so.



We have to return to the aims of education. They have to be at the core of all decisions made. It has to be about young people – ably supported by able professionals to make the right choices for them, with them.

The league tables, especially with the inclusion of the EBacc subjects, have annihilated choice for young people. When the government talk of “accountability” do they ever consider the accountability we have to young people?

There are schools throughout the country who say in their “mission statement” or on their school website that they’re committed to empowering young people to be independent learners but how can this truly be the case if the young people concerned are told exactly what they have to learn?

Let’s face the facts. The league tables are a strait-jacket for learning. We all want our children and young people to achieve. We all want them to “attain” and to do the very best that they can but we don’t want them to be performing seals. We don’t want their learning to be ruled by the school’s need to be accountable to a government diktat.

Schools are in an almost impossible situation with a complete contradiction to contend with – by having an aspiration to empower and enable young people in their learning on the one hand and by having to protect their school and their jobs by adhering rigidly to a teaching process that’s being imposed upon them on the other.

The league tables aren’t fair to leaders and managers. They’re not fair to teachers and they’re most certainly not fair to the hundreds and thousands of young people who have had their learning manipulated in order to accommodate the extremely narrow view of education that’s asserted by the policy makers.

exam stress anxiety

Enough is enough.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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