I think school performance tables play a valuable role, providing a channel for school accountability and also informing parents’ choice of school. Our research shows that their removal in Wales for a decade from 2001 significantly reduced average pupil progress and widened inequality.
So performance metrics, “league tables”, for school groups are likely to be useful too. Today, by some wildly improbable coincidence, three different studies are released providing these for Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and other groups including Local Authorities. These come from (in alphabetical order), the DfE, EPI and the Sutton Trust; and they all contribute a lot to the debate.
These are still early days in the development of this methodology and no doubt more work will be done to refine the analysis, continuing a DfE working paper here. But if the legislation/determination/plan/desire/hope/vague preference goes ahead for all schools to join MATs, then they will become increasingly important. These initial exploratory papers are then also very important.
I want to make two quick points about the eventual form that MAT league tables might take. Both flow from the uncontroversial point that school groups are different from schools.
First, all three reports focus centrally on the average performance across the MAT: take an outcome measure and average it across all the schools in the group. There is discussion about the choice of performance metric, and the base year and so on. The central concern is a desire to not penalise MATs taking on low-performing schools. There is less discussion about the implications of there being many schools in a MAT.
But if the average is the sole focus of the performance tables then there are significant dangers. Schools (and groups) respond to what is measured. If the only thing measured is the group average then there may be a temptation for the MAT to prioritise some schools in the group at the expense of others. This might well raise the group average at the expense of one particular school. This prioritising might include channelling resources and assigning the most effective teachers. This could leave some schools and communities badly served. And crucially this would be invisible if the MAT average was all that was published.
So it seems to me imperative that MAT performance tables must also include reporting the minimum performance as well as the average. This might be the performance of the lowest performing school in the group. And publish the max too if you wish.
(Of course, the same argument applies to the current league tables: that they focus on the average across pupils in the school (although, briefly, they didn’t)).
Second, some chains are local, others are more geographically spread. Both configurations have positives and both have problems, for discussion another day. For parents choosing schools, there is only limited value in knowing the national or regional performance of a MAT, because chances are there is only one “branch” of that MAT you can reach, and that is the key information you need. So group level MAT performance tables can only be part of the answer; if they were all that was published, parental choice would be manifestly less well informed.
For those of you still reading, the obvious answer to both points is: publish school level tables alongside MAT level tables. Indeed; and ideally they would be published in an integrated way that was both comprehensive and comprehensible. Someone must know a 14 year old web wizard with a strong aesthetic sense.
But it seems that that may not happen. Some have suggested that the White Paper implies that schools in MATs cease to exist as separate entities. In that case, performance tables at “school” level are simply not feasible. This seems a very retrograde step and strongly undermines accountability.
As the debate around setting up MAT performance tables matures, we must ensure that these do not provide inappropriate incentives to MATs, and that they support not undermine parental choice.