23 May 11

Welsh school 'performance' data: public information or media scoop?

BBC Wales has published figures on the performance of individual secondary schools in Wales, based on data it had requested under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

As Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education and Skills, put it:

"The BBC have chosen to use the data released to them to generate a simplistic league table, ranking schools based on a single performance indicator.

"I remain absolutely committed to the belief that there is no role for league tables in the improvement agenda for Wales. They can be divisive and misleading and do not in themselves promote improvement. If league tables were the key to high performing schools then England would be at the top of the PISA scores. But it is not by some distance.

"One of the best-performing countries according to a range of education measures is Finland where they do not have league tables."

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson told the BBC:

"We do not believe that simplistic league tables have a role in the improvement agenda for Wales and that is why we scrapped them.

"This is an extremely simplistic league table ranking schools according to a single piece of data from one school year.

"To get a genuine view of a school's performance you need to take account of a range of data, look at progress and context what the BBC have done simply does not reflect what any school improvement professional or teacher would recognise as an informed and rounded view of school performance."

Voice has long maintained that school league tables have always been a crude indicator of a school's performance. Statistics don't tell us about the circumstances affecting individual schools, such as pupil intake, social and community issues, the age of the buildings and their impact on running costs, staff recruitment issues and so forth.

However, is the BBC's story, "based on last year's GCSE examinations", about public information or delivering a 'scoop'?

The BBC admits that "the information published by BBC Wales is not intended to present a definitive judgment on the performance of any given school and is based on the GCSE examination results of only the most recent year."

There are more serious issues to be addressed, particularly the funding gap between schools in Wales and England. The BBC states that "the percentage achieving this measure [the percentage of pupils in each school achieving five A* to C grades overall and also the percentage achieving five A* to C grades including the key subjects of English or Welsh and mathematics] in Wales in 2010 was 49.4%, while in England it was 53.4%." Perhaps they should investigate what lies behind these differences.

The rather crowing tone of the BBC Wales presenters announcing the story and the use of phrases such as "never before made public", "revealed", "obtained" and "BBC Wales has now made more information available on school performance than at any time since league tables were abolished in Wales in 2001" suggest that 'breaking' the story was the real motivation.

Revealing or concealing information is the current obsession of journalists, lawyers and politicians, but it's what you do with that information, its quality and its context that really matter.

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