School League Tables Should Account for Social Environments I Oxford Open Learning
School League Tables

School League Tables Should Account for Social Environments

New research by Bristol University shows that pupils’ social contexts should be considered when compiling school league tables.

Long considered the ‘bottom line’ in comparing schools’ achievements, league tables represent grades in a social vacuum, not reflecting the disparate reality of student backgrounds. A school in an affluent catchment area with predominantly native English-speaking pupils will experience several advantages over a school with pupils from deprived backgrounds, or who don’t have English as a first language. The schools’ effectiveness can’t truly be inferred, then, by noting higher attainment in the first school and lower attainment in the second. Rather, the progress each child makes is relative, and pupils in the second school may be making excellent progress in spite of what the league table suggests.

This is something teachers have always been aware of. People working in schools see children with hungry, rumbling bellies. They see children with profound special educational needs. They see fifteen year-olds from China arrive in school just a few months ahead of GCSE exams with a whole new language and written alphabet to learn. Teachers know that there’s more to it than the league tables show, and yet, every year, newspapers churn out the same columns of numbers for parents’ microanalysis.

The 2019 study carried out by the Centre for Multilevel Modelling in Bristol University suggests that 20% of schools could shift an incredible 500 places in national league tables if the social context of students was factored into their compilation. Additionally, more than half of “underperforming” schools would leave this punitive category with the recognition that their pupils’ backgrounds have an impact on the level and speed of expected progress.

For league tables to improve based on this study’s conclusions, they must acknowledge the influence of factors affecting attainment, including: free school meal eligibility, special educational needs, residential deprivation, EAL (English as an additional language), ethnicity, gender, and age.

Whether or not the government adopts the suggested changes, parents should also remember that there are more things to consider than league tables when choosing a school. Open days, inspection reports, and speaking directly to teachers and pupils can all be really helpful ways to assess a school’s suitability. Because as Disraeli famously put it, “There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”


For more on this subject, you can read a report by the BBC via the link below.

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Becky Kleanthous is a freelance copywriter, poet and essayist. She is also a qualified English teacher of 11-18 year olds. She has a Master’s in Education (awarded with distinction), an English Language Bachelor’s degree and an English Literature and Creative Writing Bachelor’s degree. She has been an examiner for one of England’s leading exam boards, a private tutor, a Deputy Head of Year, a Gifted and Talented Coordinator, a TEFL teacher, and a mentor to trainee teachers. Becky has written extensively for educational sites such as Audiopi, University Compare and The Calculator Site, and she can be found at

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