THERE comes a time in the life of many middle-class city-dwelling families when they sell up their tenement flats and head for the suburbs.
The exodus, a familiar one in conurbations across the world, happens for many reasons, including the desire for a garden, a quieter life in a more family friendly environment and a bigger home to accommodate the 2.4 children.
Another critical reason is the choice of school. The perception abounds that schools in cities are not as good as those in surrounding areas and parents rightly want the very best for their offspring. What is interesting about this trend, however, is the evidence on which such decisions are made. Namely exam results and the league tables that newspapers such as The Herald publish every year which tend to be dominated by schools serving well-heeled suburban communities where property prices are often raised to an artificial level because of the reputation of the education on offer.
On the face of it, the proportion of pupils who get five or more Highers in S5 - the benchmark commonly used - should be a good measure of how well a school performs. And it can be. It is undoubtedly true, as inspection reports have shown, that some schools in suburbs surrounding Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen with good exam results are amongst the best in Scotland, but, interestingly, some are not. Likewise, some city schools further down the league tables may have been rapped over the knuckles by inspectors, but others can boast Scotland's finest inspection reports.
This confusion over what league tables actually tell us was under discussion earlier this week when the UK Statistics Authority questioned the Scottish Government's strategy of publishing results on an official website without making direct comparisons between schools. In its response, the Scottish Government said comparing schools was almost impossible given the wide diversity of pupil cohorts, communities and cultures in Scotland and there is much truth in this. For example, poverty is the single biggest suppressor of attainment in every education system in the world, yet only The Herald consistently publishes data on free school meals alongside exam results.
But there is another crucial but little-known fact in the formulation of league tables that makes their findings even more misleading. The proportion of pupils passing five or more Highers is not worked out, as one would expect, from those who actually sat Highers in S5. Rather, it is a percentage of the total number of pupils a particular school had in S4, regardless of their academic ability. In other words, schools are being judged more on the make-up of their pupil cohort, over which they have no control, than on how successful they are at getting bright pupils through their Highers. Because leafy middle- class schools - and those in the private sector for that matter - have greater proportions of pupils staying on to sit Highers they will almost always appear to be better performing. League tables are dubious not just because of a lack of social context, but because they don't even tell us what we think they do - how good a school is at getting pupils to pass exams.
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