The publication of school exam results may be supported by some parents and politicians - and by some schools which cherish their high rankings in the resulting league tables - but it has always been a blunt instrument that fails to reflect the diversity of schools and communities in Scotland.
Now the chorus of doubters has been joined by an authoritative critic: the UK Statistics Authority, the body that seeks to provide an official, impartial voice on statistics. Publishing school exam results without making direct comparisons between schools, says the authority, is a questionable strategy that leaves parents open to making the wrong conclusions. The implication is that statistics without context are essentially meaningless.
The supporters of publishing exam results argue that they encourage poorly performing schools to buck up their act and hold local authorities accountable. But what the tables can never do is reflect the enormous range in catchment areas, size of school, teaching ability, or how much a school and its pupils have improved. Such a bald and basic instrument can also never tell a parent whether a particular school, with its own atmosphere, ethos and teachers, is right for their child.
But perhaps the biggest flaw with exam tables is they do not reflect the single most important factor in determining exam attainment, which is poverty. This connection between deprivation and poorer exam results is beyond question and it is why The Herald publishes the results alongside data on the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals. This, too, is a relatively blunt measurement but it does at least provide some context. It is this context that is all important in helping parents interpret the figures.
The problem is that, year after year, the figures are being used to judge which schools are better than others and that is a deeply flawed idea, as the Scottish Government knows. On the face of it, one school may be on top of the league while another is at the bottom, but it is a meaningless comparison without any data on how much private tuition, for example, is provided to the pupils in well-to-do areas. Such tuition is almost a given in some schools and has the potential to influence exam results independently of what the school is doing. It is the school, though, that gets the credit when the results come in.
Even more worrying is the potential the results have in the long term to distort the performance of schools as parents use the tables to enrol their children in the best performers. As middle-class parents cluster into certain catchment areas, this makes it even harder for schools at the bottom to improve their position.
The question is: what can be done about this? The idea of suppressing the information on exam results after so many years of it being public is out of the question but the results are not being published in a useful way. The Scottish Government says it does not like league tables - and we agree with them on that - but it can at least reflect on what the UK Statistics Authority has said. Scotland's exam results should be published, but they should only be published in a format that enables useful and intelligent analysis.
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