Education: Why we should ignore school league tables and try to be more like Finland

Sheffields Michael Palin thinks Finland has it all - and so should the citys schools.
Sheffields Michael Palin thinks Finland has it all - and so should the citys schools.

In some Sheffield schools this week, teachers returned to see their leadership team obsessing over league tables.

The primary school league tables were unveiled just before Christmas and while more confident head teachers will ignore the results because they add no new element of data, there have been those who scrutinised them and looked at how they compare their school to neighbouring ones.

Put simply, Finland approaches education differently. And gets better results. To quote Michael Palin, ‘Finland has it all.’

Will the league tables encourage people to apply to other schools instead?

The league tables are, of course, the resource the public goes to when wanting to see how well schools perform and, crucially, when desiring a direct comparison between local schools and those elsewhere in the city.

If you haven’t had a look at how well your local school does, the best place to have a look at the tables is the BBC website.

Across a range of criteria, the league tables allow schools to be ranked. And that’s what parents like to see.

The irony is that the league tables are published after the deadline for this year’s school applications, so people who use the league tables to inform their choice about where to apply are using data that is well over a year old.

And much could have happened in the school since then.

Some head teachers worry over the league tables, while others glance at them with a contented feeling. Because in theory they can affect application numbers. If a school is operating below capacity or has a large number of starters from outside its catchment, those potential lost applications are crucial because they will affect funding in the future.

The government and the media seems obsessed with league tables. Just before Christmas, much was made of the OECD’s International Student Assessment, known as PISA. Here, 72 countries take part in tests and are then compared with each other.

This year the UK finished 15th in science and 21st in reading, prompting officials and commentators to point at Finland and, with mouth open, exclaim “they’re better than us!”

This news should not be surprising. Not in the least. I know three teachers who have been to Finnish schools in the last few years and all of them came back with tales of a progressive education system.

Finland places an increasing emphasis on creativity rather than getting fixated with maths and language. After a rigorous and intensive training programme, Finnish teachers are given much more freedom and trust to simply do their job without the relentless scrutiny we deploy in this country. Teaching in Finland is a respected profession, and teachers are given enough time to plan during a school day without being expected to take batches of work home to begin another day of work at 6pm.

Put simply, Finland approaches education differently. And gets better results.

To quote our very own Michael Palin, Finland has it all.

So yes, we need to be more like Finland and learn lessons from their performance in the OECD tests.

But in raising our game to Finland’s level, it doesn’t necessarily mean making changes within the classroom – there are lessons we should be learning outside the classroom as well.

But above all, parents and teachers in Sheffield should be reassessing their perception of league tables. Are they important? The primary school league tables don’t offer any way to compare sporting opportunities, the well-being of students, the number of truly inspirational teachers, the promotion of languages or the satisfaction of parents. Who is to judge that these are not as important as progress in subjects the government favours?

And as for the OECD league tables, what’s with all the envious pointing at Finland anyway?

We finished 15th in science and 21st in reading. That’s way above many other developed nations. Yet somehow the UK authorities still think we have the right to be top of the charts when it comes to education.

Funding cuts and redundancies are making life in schools harder and harder, making teachers ill and causing many to leave the profession.

We can’t have it both ways; the UK cannot expect to top the global league tables without making education an absolute financial priority.

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