Why school league tables are bad for students’ mental health.

A student’s exam grades should never matter more to the school than to the student.

But here in the UK they do, and have done for a long time. More than a fleeting consideration of what the annual publication of league tables means for schools, teachers and students will reveal the staggering negative implications of the whole sorry system.

Indulge me. I’d like to examine some of the reasons why school league tables are the worst idea since Theresa May decided to dance onto the Tory conference stage.

1. Children are not data. They are messy, unpredictable, prone to existential change and at the mercy of their families, their experience and their hormones. The data that comes with a child should be regarded with suspicion as it cannot accommodate what happens outside a classroom in a child’s life. House moves, change of schools, death of a parent, parental separation, substance abuse issues in the home, housing difficulties, trouble with the law, parental ill health, birth of siblings, unemployment, domestic violence… All of these things and many more have the potential to wreck a child’s ability to do well in school.

2. Children do not develop in a straight line; it is impossible accurately to predict when a child is 4 what GCSE grades they will get. To develop a system where a teacher’s ability and performance is judged by the academic performance, as measured by paper grades, of their students is to create a system where undue pressure on the child is unavoidable.

3. If a child wants to achieve something, they should understand that it is their responsibility to work towards it with the help of their teachers. This is called empowerment. They should not expect their teachers to drag them, kicking and screaming, towards achievement. If they achieve, it should be their achievement. If they do not, they should own the failure. No child should ever be able to credit their teacher for a success or blame them for a failure. This is disempowerment, and results in the kind of ‘kidult’ who is unable to take ownership of any aspect of their life without blaming others. It is unhealthy. At its worst, it produces a young person who is driven through education by committed and selfless teachers, and then ends up at a university without those teachers and realises they can’t cope, leading to profound mental health difficulty.

4. It is NOT essential to a child that they achieve their maximum potential in every subject, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. Setting up a system where children come into your lesson with a Minimum Target Grade is not pursuing excellence. Holding a teacher to account for the achievement by each child of their MTG is forcing that teacher to bully that child. Yes, the data-crunching may tell you that Nadia has the ability to get a 7 in French GCSE, but she hates languages, wants to be a hairdresser and has absolutely no intention of going onto an A Level course. All she needs to get her onto her post-16 course is a 4. Kindness dictates that we do the best by Nadia, teach her and help her learn, encourage her to do her best. But at some point our responsibility is to leave her alone to concentrate on what she really wants and channel her efforts towards what she really needs to do. The system we have now forces a teacher to choose between the way in which their performance will be judged and Nadia’s needs, and brings them down on the wrong side. It’s not fair on Nadia and all the other students.

5. Exams should test what is taught, not dictate it. League tables being so important to schools, we put the cart before the horse and start with the exam and work backwards. This means that time in the classroom is explicitly directed towards elements of the exam. In many schools mentioning criteria for exam success is seen as desirable and creditable in year 7. So the pressure starts early. Is this for the student’s learning? No, it’s preparing them to learn early that the focus is on exam success. It’s a brave school that doesn’t do this.

6. Education should be more important than exams. The system where exam results matter so much to schools that they direct up to one half term out of six to teaching exam skills and doing practice papers is a scandal, if you think education is important. Thank goodness that many schools have decided not to do formal AS level exams, freeing up extra time for actual teaching and learning and exploration of the wider discipline of A level subjects. We need to remember that students have probably chosen these subjects because they are INTERESTED in them. Reading around the subject and deepening their knowledge and skills is more important in the long term than doing another practice paper. Except that in the febrile exam factory atmosphere of the GCSE and A Level classroom, where the school’s position in the league tables can make or break them, it isn’t. Exams are reductive and result in less education happening in schools.

7. Education is not testing. Testing all the time doesn’t make a child know more. Testing all the time helps schools identify who to drive harder and what extra measures to put in place to ensure a child looks good on paper for the school.

8. Not everything which is not tested is unimportant. This is a truth almost more vital than the complementary fact that not everything which is tested IS important. There is nothing more depressing that the sixth former’s hand going up and the child saying “Will this be in the exam?” and in the face of a negative response, crossing their arms and waiting until you get back on track. The mere existence of a national curriculum means that a committee has decreed what is worth knowing and what isn’t. In my mind, if you don’t find that a truly horrifying idea, then you are limiting who you are as an educator. The satisfaction of seeing good exam results is definitely a part of the school year, but we should be happy for the students rather than congratulating ourselves grimly on driving them through it. Surely the joy of educating is instilling a germ of interest, watching passion born, giving students wings to fly beyond school.

There are many more reasons why league tables are bad for students’ mental health because they make grades more important to the school than the student, but I have depressed myself too much by writing this to go into it. I'm not pretending there is an easy answer to what I regard as the problem of league tables. It is an easy, nay facile, way of judging a school. Anyone who knows anything about education knows that league tables you more about cohort than educational excellence, but we are where we are, and i is hard to see how we put the genie back in the bottle. My hope is that the coming year, when I believe there will be no published league tables (u-turns notwithstanding) , may represent a chance to look at things differently, but governments being addicted to data and numb to nuance, I'm not holding my breath.