David Behrens: School league tables are not the be-all and end-all in education

THE publication on Thursday of the annual performance tables for the nation's secondary schools will have done little to lighten the stress with which, we are told, teachers are afflicted.

The Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools, at Leeds Beckett University, is the only institution of its kind in the country, and has to be taken seriously when it warns that children’s education is suffering because of the poor mental health of many teachers.

More than nine in ten say their teaching is less creative and their energy levels lower when they are stressed. The excessive workload and constant scrutiny is at the root of this, they say.

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The league tables, which rank the performance of one school over another, are the principal manifestation of this scrutiny. In a world of made-up “value added measures” by the Department for Education, points mean prizes.

Of course, the tables are important; parents have a right to know whether the institution to which they are entrusting their children’s future is performing as proactively as it should be – but they become self-defeating if the school becomes a slave to the statistics. There is a balance to be struck between monitoring and interfering.

My journey as a parent through the state education sector has recently ended, and last month I had the unusual privilege of being able to thank a few of the teachers who had steered my son into a good university. It was the annual “celebration evening” at his old school and the last time he or I would see most of them.

They reacted, as teachers tend to, with humility. “He did it himself,” was the gist of what they said. It’s true that he worked hard and deserved his success, but it was a partnership: between him, them and Mrs B and myself. Had any of those wheels come off the wagon, it would have been a lot harder to steer.

It is the sort of school where teachers tend to stay the course because, I presume, there is job satisfaction to be had from teaching pupils who want to be taught. If those students form the majority in a classroom, the others may try to rise to their level, and vice versa. And in teaching as in any walk of life, job satisfaction and stress co-exist on an inverse sliding scale.

That’s why it’s impossible to separate a school from its catchment area – an ideal to which Ofsted seemed to aspire in its most recent annual report. Disadvantaged pupils, it said, should not be used as an excuse for a badly run school. It’s not unreasonable for it to expect that schools should be well-run irrespective of their catchment, but it is unrealistic to think that their expectations should be the same.

Inequalities in society can be levelled only by society itself, and even the best teachers must work with the raw material they are given. If they are expected to steer the wagon by themselves, it’s not surprising they are stressed.

Piling on the anxiety and demanding more points on the “Progress-8” score, the Government’s latest measure of a school’s performance, doesn’t address the cause of the imbalance. It’s like putting up a “hole in the road” sign but not sending around a workman to fill it in.

However, schools are within a government’s control; parents are not. So league tables are easier all around, except for the teachers.

The same is true of the relationship between schools and families – it’s easier for parents, when things go wrong, to ascribe to teachers responsibility that they should have taken themselves.

The former Education Secretary Justine Greening recognised the futility of treating the symptoms and not the cause when she presided over the abandonment of legislation that would have forced all schools in under-performing council areas to convert to academies. But Ms Greening was forced out earlier this month, apparently because Theresa May found her manner patronising.

There was some irony in this. How many of us have come away from a school parents’ evening with our wrists mildly slapped and then complained under our breath that the school was being condescending? To paraphrase what my own English Lit master taught us: the fault is not in our teachers but in ourselves.