What School League Tables Do Not Tell You
Is it pure coincidence that the best two subjects at A level are Chinese and mathematics?
School league tables have caused a lot of agony and misunderstanding. As raw statistics, they are more or less meaningless.
You've probably noticed that results and rankings swing wildly according to which newspaper you happen to look at and however poor the results, schools almost always put a positive spin on their performance.
What matters ultimately is how well a school will do for your child.
Lies damn lies and league tables!
What school league tables fail to reveal
Intellect and intake
- The pupils’ IQs: Two Ds for some pupils is a triumph of wonderful teaching.
- The pupils’ backgrounds: How much help/support are they getting at home?
- The school’s background: Is it academically selective or mixed ability?
- The school’s sixth form policy: Is it pinching, for example, bright girls from neighbouring girls’ schools?
- The school's attitude to ability: Is it turfing out the less able pupils?
- SIxth form entry requirements: Does it insist on very high grades at GCSEs in proposed A level subjects?
- Good years and bad years: Is this a blip, a one-off? There may be exceptional circumstances, such as the death of a teacher six months before the exam.
- How many children are doing really well: Especially in subjects that you are interested in. A cohort of excellence will give leadership and confidence to the rest of the school.
- Are sufficiently few pupils failing, to avoid the reverse effect?
We are hearing some disturbing stories of schools chucking out pupils who have not done well enough at AS level, to keep them from polluting the school’s A level results.
League tables do not reflect:
- The school’s policy towards A levels: Does it allow pupils to ‘have a go’
- Whether a school allows pupils to take an extra A level (for stretching/breadth).
- The school's policy towards borderline candidates: Does it deter the doubtful from taking a subject?
- What subjects are taken? Some, eg business studies and classical civilisation, are considered easier than others (and are marked down by Oxbridge as a result).
- General studies: The league tables do not tell you which schools are taking general studies at A level: A level general studies can push league table ratings up no end.
- The spread of subjects at A level: Which are popular? Which neglected? Does that profile fit your child – it may reflect the relative quality of teaching, or just the spirit of the school.
- The quality of education overall: Depth, breadth, all-round, music, debating… things that help pupils learn to think for themselves. By sheer swotting, exams can be successfully passed – but at the expense of what?
- The reliability of the figures: The more pupils there are, the more statistically significant the results are.
- Highers and A-levels: Watch out for Scottish schools lurking within the English league tables: Many Scottish schools offer two systems – Scottish Highers (usually for the weaker brethren) and A levels. Only the A levels show up in the league tables.
- International Baccalaureate (IB): Watch out for schools offering the IB; some educationalists suspect the UCAS tariff awarded to IB exams (and used in most league tables) is too high. UCAS has determined that an IB score of 35 points (out of a maximum of 45) is the equivalent of four and a half A grades at A level. Pupils who achieve the maximum 45 IB points are deemed to have the equivalent of over six As at A level! Since newspapers have started to compile league tables using this new tariff, IB schools have shot up the tables.
- Treat class size figures with care: How you teach, what you teach and to whom all govern the size that a class can be before performance deteriorates. The only certain thing about small class sizes is that they mean large bills.
Interpreting league table results as best you can...
Always remember that league tables are only one, often unreliable, indicator of how a school performs. And, of course, this still won’t tell you which is the right school for your child.
On this website we provide (for subscribers) in-depth analysis of the exam performance of every school, with publicly available examination results, in England. These essential exam details are found on the individual school pages or use GSG Interactive to compare schools' performance. See Latest Exam Data and Latest School Rankings for more information.
Questions to ask the schools of interest
- Something to declare? Any special circumstances?
- Results: Ask for a complete breakdown of exam results for the last three years (or if you are a subscriber, use this website - we have done all the hard-work for you!). Don't be fobbed off with a ‘summary’ of results, – they are asking you to trust them with your child, so why won’t they trust you to react sensibly to the results? Ask also which year group took the exams – make sure that re-takes and early examinations are listed separately.
- Strengths and weaknesses: With all this in front of you and a cold towel wrapped around your head, look to see where the weaknesses and strengths are to be found (or simply subscribe and check the individual school pages - Data/Results and Performance tabs) . Which are the popular and successful subjects? Is one subject pulling the overall results up? Or down? Or is a 100 per cent A grade pass in Norwegian translated as one pupil (with a Norwegian mother)? Is it pure coincidence that the best two subjects at A level are Chinese and mathematics?
- Numbers: How many pupils are taking exams over all? A school with a sixth form of 40 (three children doing each subject) should find it considerably easier to come high on the league tables than a larger school. The more taking any one subject, the more commendable when the results are strong, and the wider the scope for failure.
- Selection: Watch out for sudden improvements, particularly in mainstream subjects, and look warily at the numbers of candidates: if the number has halved from one year to the next, could it be that the school policy has been to force out the weaker candidates and so manipulate the results?
- Schools pages: Take a look at the A level results displayed on the relevant school’s page on our website. These dials will help you see quickly how well a school is doing. The exam PDF reports will show you a subject by subject breakdown. which are the more successful subjects, and which are unusually popular. You will also be able to see how well girls do compared to boys, what percentage of pupils gained three A grades, and so on.
- Explore the exam performance tabs of individual English schools on this website: These will give you some idea of what is going on and where the weak teaching might be. Now you are in a position to ask the head to explain those appalling geography results, and to explain what is being done about the situation. Listen carefully, because all schools have weaknesses, and the important thing is what is being done to remedy them.
- Value-added: Look at the ALIS/MIDYIS/YELLIS (systems covering the A level, middle and primary years respectively, managed by the University of Durham) or other value-added data, which should show how good the results really are, allowing for the quality of individual pupils. Publicly available value-added information is included in our statistics on individual schools pages. Government value-added tables for English schools are now published (though not for some independent schools). Do they show the school in a better light, or a worse one? Ask why.
Clues to success?
Use 'Six Of The Best' and 'My Schools' to delve behind the school league tables.
- which school is best at physics
- how well children with special needs do
- how many children at a school do very well indeed (or don't do well at all)
- Which of your short-list of schools are best at maths and geography or English and economics or...
and much, much more...
For additional information see Latest School Rankings
Register for our Newsletter...
...and receive our FREE expert guide to Tutors!
Education News Feeds
Latest Education News from around the web.
- All-inclusive holiday boom leaves local workers and tour operators out in the cold
- Americans love to ask people 'what do you do'? | Heather Long
- 'I was bullied and beaten every day. Programming saved my life'
- The US could use an unofficial second (and third and fourth) language | Jeremy Tiang
- Learning something new doesn't have to be heartbreaking
- Graduate teaching assistants deserve more than £4.40 per student per week
The Good Schools Guide is not responsible for the content of external internet sites