The world of alternative facts

Kathryn Bell, Headteacher at Burgess Hill Girls, looks at why data in league tables can be misleading

Data is king, we’re told. But it’s how it’s used that really counts. And when we’re talking about exam grades, for smaller schools a few percentage points here and there make a big difference.

Immediately after the release of GCSE and A-level grades we always publish our results, warts and all, on the school website. There are numerous ways in which the data can be massaged, but we choose not to. 

It’s part of our ethos of honesty and openness.

However, the data published in The Telegraph league tables says quite clearly that at Burgess Hill, only 71% of our girls achieved the benchmark standard of five GCSE A* to C grades, including English Language and Mathematics. This is below the results posted by a local academy school and equal to another. 

Who can blame parents who then demand to know why they are making financial sacrifices to send their child to a fee-paying school when they can do better in the state sector?

 For those who take the time to interrogate the figures a little further, a quite different story emerges. We are a school with 54 boarders from overseas: these are highly intelligent girls who have English as a second language. They are unlikely to sit GCSE English Language as they take the International English Language Test (IELTS).

This is a qualification recognised and highly respected globally and by UK universities – and no wonder. It is a phenomenally difficult examination, and I challenge any A* English language student to gain the grades our international students achieve. 

But the league tables include the girls who took IELTS rather than GCSE within the total Year 11 cohort. But how can students who do not actually take the GCSE be counted as part of the data? 

At Burgess Hill Girls, of all the students who were actually entered for English Language and Mathematics GCSE, 93% gained 5A*–C grades, including the two all-important subjects.

And of those who were entered for GCSE English Language and Mathematics, 66% achieved top A*/A grades. 

Our international students are not the only ones unfairly included in the GCSE data. Of the 51 students on roll in Year 11, three girls did not take all or some of their exams due to extenuating circumstance such as illness.


Smaller schools, in particular, are punished for these statistical anomalies, simply because a small number of students make a big difference to the headline figures. We may only have 54 boarders, but they make up 21% of Year 11. And with 51 pupils in Year 11, every girl not taking the ‘required’ GCSEs equates to a loss of virtually 2% in the tables. Simple mathematics may provide the percentage documented in the tables, but they don’t tell the truth of the results. 

Of course, I don’t blame our parents for leaping to conclusions as they glance at the league tables, running their fingers down the left-hand column to check the overall placing of their child’s school. But it’s our job to help them find the real story which the league tables all too often only serve to obscure.

Burgess Hill isn’t the only school to take issue with the strict, inflexible methodology of the league tables. Some of the biggest names in the independent sector have already voted with their feet and opted out of the rankings system. For smaller schools, it’s a tough call, but we may well follow suit if the system is not reformed.

In any case, a school is so much more than the grades achieved. Our girls are having the time of their lives and thoroughly enjoy the learning journey, and every single one of them achieves. Those are the really important results – but you won’t find them in any league table. 



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