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In a league of their own: the case against league tables and legislative bans

Jennifer Buckingham | 10 July 2009

In a surprising and badly judged move, the NSW Coalition has supported a legislative ban on the publication of school league tables. 

This legislation sets an alarming precedent. Correctly, many commentators have decried the attack on freedom of speech and the censorship of the media. Yet the issues are not as straightforward as they might seem. 

For almost a decade, I have been strenuously arguing for proper comparative school performance reporting. Parents need to be able to compare schools, and the community needs to know which schools are doing well and which are doing poorly. There are strong arguments for giving people easy access to good detailed information about schools. 

On the surface, league tables ranking schools based on test results might seem like a good way of informing parents about school performance. However, league tables are not necessarily a good use of this information nor are they best way to help parents make informed decisions about school choice for their children. 

League tables can easily mislead by making inappropriate comparisons. For example, how does a league table of HSC results deal with schools that enroll all their top students in the International Baccalaureate? Such a school would have an un-deserved poor showing in a HSC results league table. 

In countries where league tables are published and poorly performing schools are sanctioned, there is some evidence that this detrimentally affects the quality of education provision. Schools begin to narrow their efforts into getting kids ‘over the line’ in literacy and numeracy. Less time is spent on other curriculum areas, and less time is spent on the kids who are already doing well. These problems are not insurmountable, but they are real. 

Nevertheless, the NSW Coalition came down on the wrong side of the argument. Let’s not forget this information will still be available through the federal government’s school reporting website.  Schools will continue to be compared and league tables will be drawn up by newspapers, lobbyists and other interest groups. While not the best use of test result data, publishing league tables should not be a crime. 

If any good has come out of the controversy of the last couple of week, it has been the opportunity to educate people about the use and abuse of league tables. Rather than legislative bans, this is the best way to ameliorate their potential negative effects. 

Jennifer Buckingham is a Research Fellow at CIS. Her paper In Defence of Non-Government Schools was released last week.