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League tables 'tyranny' condemned

Published 21/05/2015

Sir Anthony Seldon is quitting as master of Wellington College
Sir Anthony Seldon is quitting as master of Wellington College

Private schools have become obsessed with exams and league tables in their hunt to attract parents, according to a leading headmaster.

Sir Anthony Seldon warned that the "crushing burdens" of government policies, national annual rankings and inspections have "squeezed the lifeblood" out of the independent sector.

And he said he was "deeply concerned" about the pressure placed on young people, who are facing an "exam-heavy education" and little preparation for the real world.

Sir Anthony is due to step down as master of fee-paying Wellington College this summer.

In his final speech day address at the school this Saturday, he will say: "The biodiversity of our independent school sector is now under real threat. The last 10 years have seen the richness in diversity and provision of the sector damaged because of the tyranny of league tables and a succession of government policies that have forced up costs and limited the range of outlets, especially outside the south east and cities.

"Private schools, in their hunt for exam-focused parents from Britain and abroad, have narrowed the range of their educational opportunities and become overly focused on exams and league table performance to the exclusion of much else.

"Prep schools are obsessed by getting their pupils into the best senior schools, and senior schools are obsessed by league tables and getting their pupils into top universities to the detriment of a wider education. Universities equally have allowed exams to become overly dominant to the detriment of the all-round education and intellectual development of their students. Very few have been able to resist this pressure.

"Equally, the pressure that this obsession with exam performance has placed on young people, at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, is totally unacceptable. I am deeply concerned for our children, whose experience of education is now so exam-heavy, and whose preparation for life and the workplace is so light."

Sir Anthony said that leading private school groups need to be more assertive, imaginative and a "united force on the education stage". This would put pressure on government to give them more freedom, and reduce policies that have led to rising costs for schools.

"A principal justification for an independent sector in education is that it uses its independence to be innovative in ways that challenge and provoke the large state sector," he said.

"But the crushing burdens of state requirements, league tables and inspection regimes, have squeezed the lifeblood and originality out of much of the sector. One independent school now looks much like another, for all the attempts to portray themselves as different. Parents are being denied real choice in provision, and we lack the force, individually and collectively, to challenge the monolithic state regime in education."

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said: " There is no evidence for most of Anthony Seldon's claims. There is huge diversity and innovation happening across the UK independent sector.

"Our exam results are excellent but research shows parents choose our schools mainly because of the holistic and broad education on offer. It is not the case that independent schools are chasing league table positions - most now offer iGCSEs which have the effect of excluding them from the DfE league tables and many of the highest achieving independent schools refuse to release their exam results to the press."

A Department for Education spokeswoman insisted that Government reforms are "delivering higher standards and restoring rigour to our schools" with league tables just one way the parents can hold schools to account.

She added: "Tests are a key part of ensuring young people master the key skills and knowledge that will prepare them for life in modern Britain. However, we have taken real steps to ensure pupils are not on a constant treadmill of revision and testing, including scrapping January modules, decoupling AS-levels and removing resits from league tables."

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