In England, school league tables are used to tell the story of the country's education system. The tables, released once a year, allow comparisons not only between schools but also between programs offered by each school. They also keep parents and education officials in the know about how each one is performing compared to others.
Which is why every attempt to overhaul the tables – including paring down the number of programs that appear within – raises controversy, as did the newly announced plan by the Coalition to remove several thousand vocational courses from the list of the programs schools can use to calculate their league table position.
Thousands of vocational courses that lead to students "working hard but getting nowhere" – possibly nine in 10 of the total – are to be dropped from school and college league tables in England under plans outlined by the government.
Only a few hundred of nearly 4,000 qualifications now offered to 16-to-19-year-olds would merit inclusion in the tables, which remain an important yardstick by which many parents and ministers judge education performance.
This isn't the first time that Education Secretary Michael Gove has taken a hatchet to the league tables. Since taking office, he has already removed a number of GCSE-equivalent vocation programs from league tables and now it appears he's coming for the rest. Although students will theoretically still have access to the programs even after they're no longer on the league tables – as long as they remain Ofqual-accredited – if the schools continue down the path they began after the first set of cuts, the programs might be limited or cut outright.
The move was spurred on by the 2011 report on vocational education authored by King's College London Professor Alison Wolf. She pointed out that few of the vocational programs offered in schools were academically rigorous, especially when it came to core subjects like mathematics and language arts.
Furthermore, the programs often underperformed in their chief function – getting students ready for the workplace. More than 350,000 students between the ages of 16 and 19 were leaving after taking these courses and had no better odds of landing full-time employment than their peers who decided to forgo vocational training altogether.
Claiming the changes would set a new "quality bar", Matthew Hancock, the skills minister, said: "Every student will have to study a high-quality qualification of substantial size if their college or school sixth form is to get credit in the league tables. Secondly, it will be clear which qualifications will progress young people into skilled occupations and which are more general in nature.
"At the moment, too many students are spending time working hard but getting nowhere."