Head's Feature Article: Learning our Times Tables
Learning our Times Tables… by Carol Chandler-Thompson, Head
Standardised test scores and league tables fail to tell the whole story when evaluating schools. While metrics provide factual data points, crucial context is lost that speaks to the actual quality and impact of a school. In a week that saw both the publication of The Times' school rankings and disappointing PISA score declines in Scotland, what these figures do not capture is the concept of an enriching, well-rounded education. One of St George's strengths is our record of inspiring more girls to pursue and excel in STEM. This counters typical narratives and goes undetected in one-dimensional rankings. Ultimately, while data offers insights, there are vital qualitative factors that must balance quantifiable test results when assessing educational excellence.
League Tables only tell part of the story
‘Lies, damned lies and statistics.’ This quotation, variously attributed to Disraeli, Lord Courtney and Lord Balfour in the nineteenth century is often used to assert the idea that statistics can be used selectively to baffle and deceive. In a week when we have seen the publication of several sets of statistics and ‘league tables’ relating to education, this quotation sprang to mind.
The Times published their Parent Power tables last week, claiming that they can identify the best and highest-achieving UK schools through their metrics and Tuesday saw the publication of the PISA rankings, which lamented the state of Maths and Science in Scotland’s schools: TES : PISA 2022.
Education league tables, like Parent Power, are popular with families and educationalists alike. The natural competitiveness of schools means we are first to look at where we have placed. Families are understandably hungry for seemingly objective information that can help navigate the Edu-jargon that schools can sometimes produce in how they talk about themselves. And they do tell us some things. They tell us numbers and percentages of grades achieved. These are, mostly, indisputable facts.
Regrettably, there is a huge amount they do not tell us. Take the example of a highly selective grammar school that makes pupils sit a very competitive academic entrance exam at 11 before admitting pupils. Most of those pupils should achieve the very highest grades at 18; that school should appear at the top of league tables. Compare the highly selective grammar school with a school that admits pupils more holistically, based upon their skills, attitudes, and talents. They might admit a budding artist, a potential international sports player, or a gifted musician, who had not fared so well in their academic entrance exams. If they achieved similar or comparative grades as the grammar school, which is the better school? Which school has enabled individuals to make more academic progress in their time there? Which school might be a more enriching, inspiring, and exciting place to study? I know which I would choose for my child.
As a historian, I am conscious that ‘context is all’ (another great quote, Margaret Attwood this time). If looking at educational league tables, always consider the broader context. Since I arrived at St George’s, several parents have, understandably, questioned why we don’t appear in the Times League tables. The answer is, we are too unique to fit! Our combination of English GCSEs and Scottish Highers/Advanced Highers simply doesn’t work with the metrics used by the Times. Even if it did, I’m not sure I would be rushing to participate, for exactly the reasons outlined above. Reducing the achievements of our pupils, to such a narrow measure of success really jars. What about the confidence gained in public speaking? What about the ability to contribute successfully to a team? Deal with setbacks? Operate with integrity and humility? All these qualities, common to St George’s students explain why, alongside their excellent exam results, they are so successful in gaining their first-choice destinations in higher education and beyond.
Concerning drop in Scotland’s PISA scores
This leads me to reflect on the PISA tables published yesterday. Scotland’s scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2022 report have fallen in each of its three categories: maths, science and reading. This decline echoed a general and unprecedented fall in scores among the 81 countries and economies taking part.
Scottish students scored close to average across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for maths and science, and this is grabbing the headlines and causing much hand-wringing and lamentation. The headlines for Scottish education from the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are seemingly dismaying. In all three subject areas covered by PISA, the scores of Scottish 15-year-olds declined between 2018 and 2022. The methodology allocates countries with a score that can be equated to learning time. The fall in Scottish scores since 2018 corresponds to nearly a year in mathematics, over six months in reading, and a term in science.
The PISA tests are a way of comparing the academic performance of students in different countries around the world. The 2022 report is based on results from 690,000 15-year-olds across 81 countries and economies. Of course, there are those who see flaws in the way the data is acquired, analysed and compared. While many countries saw a decline, not all countries did. Attainment rose in Japan and Korea in all three areas, and there were rises in some areas in countries like Singapore, Israel and Italy. Lindsay Paterson, Emeritus Professor of Education Policy at Edinburgh University writes for Reform Scotland (PISA 2022 in Scotland: declining attainment and growing social inequality - Lindsay Paterson - Reform Scotland) that this might be attributable to the impact of Scottish Curriculum for Excellence reforms and goes further back than 2018:
‘As a result, over the whole decade from 2012 to 2022, the Scottish decline was equivalent to about 16 months of schooling in mathematics, 8 months in reading, and 18 months in science. The baseline of 2012 is significant because it is the first PISA group to have any experience of the Curriculum for Excellence since it was officially inaugurated in 2010. Thus, the decline started to become noticeable at the moment when the new curriculum started to impinge systematically on children’s learning. The 2022 group was the first to have all 10 years of their schooling with the new curriculum, and attainment has never been so low as it is now.’ It will be interesting to see how the debate over a skills-based curriculum, without a strong emphasis on formal knowledge develops in the coming weeks. It must certainly be set in the context of challenges faced in the state sector of rising average class sizes, teacher shortages and the impact of COVID.
St George’s defies the stereotype for girls in STEM subjects
At St George’s I am exceptionally proud of how we defy some established patterns, particularly in relation to science and mathematics. It is well known how the take-up of STEM subjects in girls’ schools is particularly strong and St George’s leads the way in this respect. Nearly 40% of the courses chosen by Upper Sixth students were in a STEM subject area, including: Architecture; Chemical Engineering; Medicine; Maths and Physics. Undoubtedly a particular strength in Maths at the school underpins this with over 80% of Upper Sixth grades in Maths at grade A in 2023. In a society where typically many female students give up Maths as soon as they reach 16, St George’s students defy this stereotype with over half of the year group choosing to study Maths beyond 16 this year. I have no doubt that there are many positive factors that support girls’ participation and achievements in these areas: we have a wealth of strong female role models to inspire; a dedicated expert team of staff with excellent subject knowledge; and we offer a breadth of opportunity to stretch and challenge students. This year alone, girls have entered competitions including UK Space Design; UK Can Sat competition, Arkwright Scholarships, Scottish Maths Challenges, and Amazon Get IT. As an independent school, we are fortunate to have the freedom to design our own curriculum, selecting from English, Welsh and Scottish qualifications that best suit our students and provide a rich experience.
So we have some interesting data to digest this week—lots of food for thought and stimulus for vibrant discussion. Nonetheless, do proceed with caution!
Our Head, Carol Chandler-Thompson, recently discussed issues surrounding the recent PISA scores with the Scotsman. This article can be found here Standardised test scores and league tables fail to tell the whole story - December 6, 2023.
Standardised Test Scores and League Tables Fail to Tell the Whole Story
Read the article published in the Scotsman.