How to Read the School League Tables

By School House

7 years ago

A spirited plea to parents to look beyond the statistics when assessing a school from head Shaun Fenton

Have you ever found yourself struggling to make sense of the school league tables? Imagine what it’s like for the teachers… Shaun Fenton, headmaster of Reigate Grammar, explains why he is apprehensive about them.

Reigate Grammar School league tables

Throughout my career as headmaster of a comprehensive school, a state grammar school and, now, a leading HMC independent school, my view on the culture of league tables has not warmed. I remain a fierce critic of league tables, belying the fact that my school was, again, ranked near the top, and stand in defence of education for personal character.

League tables are damaging because there is simply so much more to a great education. Tables can only measure half of what constitutes a great education. What matters far more is character and preparation for adult life. In my view these tables undermine the best of a child’s school days.

What the league tables don’t tell you

The drive to climb the exam charts detracts from full and competitive sports programmes, termly school productions and concerts, regular debating programmes and the Model United Nations, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award or Combined Cadet Force, a thriving house system or schemes to develop leadership and wider cultural opportunities. These activities are the core of education at my school and help form a young person’s character and prepare them for a happy and successful adult life. None of these are valued one iota by league tables.

While the 21st century brings new and unique challenges to our world, Kipling’s 105-year-old poem If, written as advice to his son, points to timeless human qualities of humility, balance, perseverance and aspiration. I sum all of that up as character – something given no weight in any league tables. The league table could never measure how a school engenders preparedness for adult life, a sense of fun, the strength of friendships or pastoral care. League tables are blind to the qualities of leadership and teamwork developed on the sports fields, to the creativity students have explored in the school’s arts programmes. Crucially, just over 100 years since the start of the war to end all wars, and at a time of further international tragedy in the Middle East, league tables can tell you nothing about the moral compass of students in the school.

How important are results?

The boldness of many schools who have opted out of league tables is admirable, but does retraction resolve the issue? Parents do need to know levels of academic performance and there is no doubt that exam results secure life opportunities. League tables give this information but it is the culture they engender that is so damaging.

Accountability drives behaviour and schools are driven to cull character-building and enriching activities to drive grades up one notch and thereby climb the league table ladders. A child needs to secure results to open doors but they need the character to make the most of those opportunities. Results matter, but schools need to communicate just as loudly that not all that is precious in an education can be ranked and measured.

What to look for on an open day

As a parent starting out on the journey of selecting your child’s school, league tables offer a neat and thereby tempting starting point. While all that data – neatly laid out and easy to digest – is beguiling, as a parent myself, I urge you to look well beyond the numbers. Ask other parents who currently have children at the schools you are interested in. Beyond that, visit the schools to soak up the atmosphere and see beyond the glossy brochures.

Do not limit your visit to an official open day. See the students and staff in action at a concert, a drama production or on the sports field. Look at how former students regard their school. Do they remain loyal to their seat of learning and, in return, does their alma mater foster good relations and a genuine interest in their lives and achievements?

So, when this year’s batch of league tables rolls off the presses, parents, I urge you to please ignore the fanfare and remember that the best schools and the best young people of their generation will be focused upon far bigger goals than merely exam grades. To rephrase Kipling, it is not your exam results but ultimately your character that determines whether ‘yours is the world and everything in it.’


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