Fact and fiction

PUBLISHED: 10:24 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 13:54 06 May 2010

SIR, — I do not know how many GCSEs (including English and maths) that Mark Twain might have obtained, but I am sure that if he had had the opportunity to spend just a few minutes perusing the source (www.dcsf.gov.uk) of the exam league tables you quoted

SIR, - I do not know how many GCSEs (including English and maths) that Mark Twain might have obtained, but I am sure that if he had had the opportunity to spend just a few minutes perusing the source (www.dcsf.gov.uk) of the exam league tables you quoted (Herts Advertiser, January 22), he would have felt that his quote that there are "lies, damn lies and statistics" was still as true as ever. It is hard to reach any other conclusion when the education authorities produce three sets of figures for A-level outcomes which manage to place a local school top of all its peers in one measure of success and bottom of another, using exactly the same data source.

This bizarre circumstance presents considerable difficulty for prospective students if they use these league tables as part of the process of choosing where to pursue their further education. In other words, figures that are collected and published with the aim of informing are now becoming distorted and increasingly valueless.

The reason for this is that the league tables, especially the ranking which you highlighted, are prone to manipulation and lead to perverse behaviour. In recent years the points-score-per-pupil table has fallen foul of this and it has increasingly become the "never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width" indicator which rewards the accumulation of qualifications, some of which have very limited relevance to universities and employers.

If further evidence is required to support my cautionary words, readers need look no further than the top of your article where two separate league tables for GCSE success now stand side by side, because the original one (percentage of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades) became devalued as the incentive to move up the league tables caused many schools to focus on what were deemed "softer" qualifications.

This unexpected consequence of league tables and targets has caused the Government to introduce recently a new GCSE league table, complete with the caveat "including English and maths". Unsurprisingly, to those who know how incentives work in all walks of life, this adjustment has swiftly shifted schools' focus back to improving the quality of teaching and learning in these two crucial subjects.

Now is the time to take this clearer thinking into the realm of A-level league tables and get back to providing an education that is properly student centered, without fear of the potentially destructive impact of poorly-designed measures of success.

PAUL de KORT,

Station Road, Harpenden.


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