The world as we know it may be ending…


Not because of the Mayan calendar, which I suspect is even less reliable than the ‘long range’ weather forecast for the next nine days, but because of what happened yesterday: The International Baccalaureate posted a message on its official Facebook page which read:

The Cheltenham Ladies’ College tops 2012 International Baccalaureate league table’

Oh dear.

The post had a link which led to the website of ‘Best Schools UK’.  Some years ago this companycontacted me to ask whether I would like my school’s IB results included in the league table they were publishing. As I was on the Governing Board of the IB at the time, I knew that no such league tables were sanctioned, and I declined to participate, despite the warning (still posted on the Best Schools website) that ‘For those schools who refuse to supply data, we have to assume they are lower graded schools.’ I also contacted the appropriate person in Geneva who subsequently ensured that ‘Best Schools UK’ were aware that they could not use any official IB logos etc. in their publications. Now, it seems, things have changed so much that the IB actually assists in disseminating these league tables, thereby appearing to give them their official blessing.

I have nothing against Cheltenham Ladies College – indeed, there is plenty of evidence that it is a fine school for those fortunate enough to afford the annual fees of approximately $37,000 (Day) or $54,000 (Boarding).  I also would not want to diminish the admirable achievement of the 18 IB students (out of a class of approximately 150) who earned an average of 41 points on their diploma. Rather, my problem is with the endorsement by the IB of the concept of league tables.

The very existence of such tables assumes that schools are in competition with each other, and that it is important to identify which ones are ‘better’ than the others to the extent of ranking them in order and declaring one the ‘best’. Furthermore, it assumes that the appropriate measure of school quality is the crude average examination score, regardless of the nature of the school or the demographic profile of the students. Is it really the case that when a young lady at Cheltenham earns 41 points, this is a ‘better’ result than when a boy from a Nepali hill village, or a Chicago housing project, earns 24 points?

If schools are to be judged and ranked solely on the examination scores, the accolades will inevitably go to schools which are highly selective (academically, economically, or both), which are well-resourced, and which limit the access to the IB to those who will do well. Does the IB really want to declare that such schools are intrinsically ‘better’ than schools which are non-selective, or which serve low-income populations, or have a preponderance of second-language students, or give open access to the IB? It is fundamental to the philosophy of the IB that the significant achievement is the gaining of a diploma; this is the indication that the demanding criteria, both academic and non-academic, have been met. Over the years there has been a creeping emphasis on the points score, particularly from the UK, but I would have hoped that the IB itself would at least have kept its distance from the travesty of the league tables.

Perhaps the Mayans saw this coming…