We must redefine ‘good’ school and forget league tables

THERE’S a large element of attitudinal change that merely requires patience, and endless amounts of it.

You can keep hammering home a message but some folk will simply never take it on board. Eventually society reaches a point where the right-thinking are a majority and the minority are so tiny as to hardly matter.

It was school league table week again this week and, no matter the amount of laborious contextualization around the figures, folk still talk in terms of “good schools” and “bad schools”. Sigh, sigh and expire with sighs.

What is a “good school”? The words mean very differing things to different people. Were I a parent, I would want a nurturing environment with ample extracurricular activities and my child guided to an appropriate post-school destination.

The likelihood of a brace of Highers would mean very little.

Yet that’s what league tables demonstrate – exam results and little else.

League tables are problematic because they are carved using several blunt instruments.

Firstly, they rank schools top to bottom based on how many pupils leave secondary each year with qualifications at level 6, which is the level Highers are classed at.

So, most Scottish newspaper league tables are drawn up using the benchmark of “pupils leaving school with five or more Highers”.

This measure gets sticky because, while all Highers are level 6, not all level 6 qualifications are Highers.

Other SCQF awards are also bracketed in level 6 but aren’t Highers.

It’s likely that a pupil leaving school with five or more level 6 awards is setting off into adulthood with five or more Highers but not necessarily.

You could happily argue that this barely matters because the percentage of non-Higher level 6 awards is so low but I suppose it depends on how you feel about accuracy.

Then, well aware of allegations of ignoring the effect of inequality on how pupils perform, a nod is given to the school’s socio-economic background.

This used to be the percentage of young people receiving free school meals, back in the day, but now is the SIMD – Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – data.

It’s more reflective than free school meals but still a vague measure. It looks at postcodes, rather than individuals, and so assumes everyone living in an affluent area is well off and everyone living in a deprived area is deprived.

There still persists a myth that schools where teenagers achieve exam success are the best schools and all other schools have to be brought up to that standard.

It’s such a shallow piece of snobbish thinking.

It completely ignores all the advantages of middle class children and all the hurdles faced by pupils not from affluent, supportive backgrounds.

The notion of “good schools” based purely on Higher performance also supports the idea that going on to university from school is the best marker of success, another example of shallow snobbery.

There is a good deal of snobbery and stereotyping involved in assessing jobs and what a job says about the person who does it.

It’s been visible this week in people getting overwrought at how much railway workers are paid, in light of this week’s strikes. There’s been a lot of online confusion about who exactly is on strike with the misconception doing the rounds that train drivers have walked out of.

I’ve seen a lot of harrumphing at the news train drivers earn upwards of £ 40,000 a year. And for what? They just go in a straight line.

I had a shot on a simulator a few years ago. ScotRail was trying to recruit female train drivers so I was brought in for a behind-the-scenes gander at what it takes to qualify as a driver.

A hell of a lot, it turns out. The training essentially boils down to doing the equivalent of a four-year university degree in about 18 months.

Thanks to his calm and articulate commentary on this week’s industrial action, Mick Lynch has been the star of the show.

The RMT’s General Secretary, who left school at 16 to be an electrician, has been wiping the floor with the privately educated, Oxbridge media, achieving the modern measure of success – he’s gone viral.

It is always interesting to see public conversations about salary and pay rises and to see how reductive are the views on the literal value placed on individual jobs. It mirrors the idea that success is Higher results and success is money.

It’s the same narrow attitude that’s helped attendance awards persevere during a pandemic. A work ethic is a good thing to be encouraged but children and young people should also be taught when to say when – and that includes knowing when it’s time to rest.

Pupils with perfect attendance have achieved an extraordinary thing – the absolute good fortune of good health and good fortune. Or at least only illness and bad luck on high days and holidays.

So much of success is good fortune and yet we don’t reflect that in league tables either.

Being the first in the family to go to university really was a vital milestone. Not because it meant that you were the first person in your family with the intellect to get there but that there was finally the means and opportunity to get you there. It meant being upwardly mobile.

Working class women of my mother and grandmother’s generation were not necessarily encouraged to aspire to university. Even if they were bright and academically able, it may not have been seen as being “for them” in a way that nursing or secretarial college was seen as an appropriate route for young women.

Young working class men might have been encouraged straight into the workforce or to take up a trade.

Aspiration is a vital attitude that schools do well to encourage but we should be well beyond the notion that all aspiration peaks at a university place.

That’s a real marker of privilege – to have any choice open to you, whether degree or apprenticeship, and not to be judged for it – and, when we reach that point, it will be the real mark of equality.


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