Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Joined-up thinking

The Welsh experience has shown that abolishing league tables can lead to better parental engagement and more effective assessment, says Brian Lightman.

In January ASCL published Achieving More Together - the result of a major research project led by Robert Hill on partnership working. There is no doubt in my mind that this publication will make a leading contribution to discussions amongst policy makers and provide a large amount of practical help to our members.

Through the research, we have been enormously encouraged to see robust evidence emerging about the many benefits of collaboration. Along with this, the book contains many clear messages about the pitfalls and the challenges which Robert summarises in Making the pieces fit.

For much of my career I worked in schools in an environment of competition. Instead of focusing on raising standards within the whole community, schools were encouraged to be inward looking, concentrating on short-term fixes to improve their own positions in the league tables.

There were few levers to take on a wider role in the community, though many of us did because we believed in this, and there were few incentives for schools in leafier areas to help those facing the greatest social challenges.

More recently there has been a growing acceptance that schools and colleges need to be outward looking and take responsibility for system leadership; we are not going to meet the challenge of providing a 21st century education unless we work together.

Nevertheless the scale of this task cannot be underestimated and the evidence Robert has gathered shows very clearly how great the challenges are. There are no simple solutions.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to collaboration is league tables. Having moved to a headship in Wales where the brave decision was taken a few years ago by the devolved government to abolish league tables, there is no doubt in my mind that this has provided an immense release for schools, enabling us to concentrate on making assessment an integral part of the learning process.

The experience has been fascinating and is exemplified by the way parents approach open evenings now. Instead of quizzing us in detail about the school's position in the league table, as they certainly did when I worked in England, they concentrate on questions which are far more fundamental to their role as partners.

What will the school do to help my child to reach his/her potential? What additional support will you provide if my child finds a subject difficult? How will you ensure that my child is safe and protected from bullying? Will my child enjoy education at St Cyres and be happy? How will you provide my child with a rounded education that prepares him/her for future life?

It is interesting to note how close these questions are to the aims and outcomes of Every Child Matters and the Children's Plan.

The abolition of league tables has certainly not led to a loss of interest in examination results and parents still read the prospectus closely in which we are rightly still required to publish these.

There is no evidence that their abolition has had a negative impact on standards which have continued to improve significantly during this period. However, there is ample evidence that our explicit focus on the values our community holds dear has had a major impact on the quality of education we provide, the quality of our school community and the motivation of our students.

In his University of Greenwich speech Gordon Brown emphasised these kinds of values strongly and stated "we need not just education reform but culture change". Robert's book gives some strong messages about how this might be achieved.

Brian Lightman

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders