We at Durham School were delighted with our A Level results this year, which were the second best on record. The school, as the extract from the Daily Telegraph shows above, was placed at 209th in the independent school league tables this year. These sentences juxtaposed may seem to some to present a strange picture. Shouldn’t we be aiming to be higher in the league tables than this? The answer to this is both yes and no, and I will explain why by setting league tables in their proper context.
Schools have had a long and uneasy relationship with league tables since they were introduced in the 1990s. No doubt they have played a part in sharpening up practice in schools and they brought some much needed transparency and accountability which, pre-internet, were very difficult for parents to find.
They are though not without their flaws. Schools are ranked on raw outcomes – usually the percentage of exams taken (GCSE or A Level) that gain grades A* or A. There can be a huge variation, from schools at the top where virtually all results are at this level, to much more modest percentages down towards the bottom of the league. What is the magic these high-performing schools generate to gain such eye-wateringly good grades?
It doesn’t take a huge amount of detective work to understand why the schools rank as they do. Overwhelmingly the most important factor in a school’s league table position is the ability of its intake. Many schools at the top of the A Level league table have very high criteria for entry into the Sixth Form or retain very able pupils selected earlier in their career. Competition is fierce, selection criteria are tough, only the brightest get in and – lo and behold – excellent results ensue. Of course good teaching goes on in these schools; however, it must be acknowledged that the pupils’ ability range is very high to begin with and it would be worrying if their results were anything other than excellent.
Sadly there are also blacker arts to achieving highly in the tables. It is not unknown for schools to enter pupils for exams only when they are predicted to do well. Encouraging pupils to take their exams elsewhere, or simply asking them to leave, will mean that only the best results are counted on the schools’ statistics. Schools may choose only to record some of their results formally, or enter pupils for qualifications that either count on A Level statistics or not, depending on whether this contributes positively or negatively to the school’s standing.
What to make of it as a parent then? The key questions to focus on when considering your child’s school’s league table position is on the value that the school adds to your child. This isn’t just a handwavey notion about character or opportunities to star in the school play. Value-added is real data that measures pupils on intake to a school, generates predictions based on that, and then compares it the results the pupils then actually get. The value added, or indeed subtracted, is the different between outcome and prediction. For me that is the key measure of the academic success of the school – much more so than raw exam results. For some pupils, three Cs at A Level is a massive achievement, reflecting excellent teaching and hard work from the youngster. That won’t be recognised in a school league table however. As a Head, though, that performance might give me more satisfaction than three As for a very bright pupil. In some senses I would say that, wouldn’t I? The value-added data at Durham School this year indicated at A Level that we are in the top 6% of schools nationally, and in the top 8% of independent schools in the country. We achieve these excellent statistics by being ambitious for all our pupils – not just those at the A/B borderline – and by supporting and challenging them along the way. Sadly, there is no league table for that.