I am not a number

Don’t just look at a school’s exam results, get the broader picture, advises Graeme May, deputy head academic at Abingdon School

Abingdon School, along with around 40 other independents, has not appeared for some years in the annual August league tables. The decision not to participate was not some fit of pique at feeling hard done by in the leagues – far from it, in fact – but one taken on the grounds that publicly ranking schools by exam results is an absurdly reductive thing to do. Worse than that – it’s something that has been allowed to have far too strong an influence on how people evaluate a school. However, could the fascination with rankings be on the decline? Maybe. Certainly for Abingdon, despite its withdrawal, the interest in places continues to rise with applications at an all time high. Reassuring. Perhaps those interested in independent education are looking beyond the less than perfect August league tables.

Abingdon’s results are published in full in August on our website each year, subject by subject. We have nothing to hide, even down to the few Cs, Ds, Es and Us that our boys get. However, simple results tell you little about the actual teaching that goes on in a school, and that surely is what people should be most interested in. The academic measure of a school is a terribly hard thing to evaluate, its value added. Does it push the most able into more stretching activities? Does it encourage the more modest abilities to achieve their potential? Overall, does it nurture a life-long love of learning?

So how do you measure these things? The answer will never be in a number and there is no substitute for visiting a school and doing your research (its website, its ISI report, its reputation in the area …). A school’s ethos will also be evident in the pupils doing the parental tours, so make sure you ask them questions. They will often be very proud of their school but not blind to its weaknesses. Don’t expect perfection in a school – anyone who tries to claim that all the teachers are perennially outstanding or that there is absolutely no bullying of any kind is quite simply not telling the truth. The measure to use here is what the school’s approach to these issues has been.

Ascertain too the quality of its pastoral provision – a thing impossible to reduce to a nice neat number, but of crucial importance in knowing if your child is likely to be happy there. Will this school be a partner with you on the often bumpy adolescent journey? Will you have honest and easy communication with them? Do you sense they really like and understand children? How far, too, will the school stretch your child beyond the academic world? What is its extra-curricular provision and policy? Will it be likely to help already developing interests prosper as well as awaken others hitherto dormant?

So, beware of tables that measure only exam results. They give you one piece of information and that may well be more a measure of a school’s selectivity rather than the thing you’re really interested in: the quality of education. The figures themselves are not always as truth-telling as you might hope. With the increase in types of qualification available, unsatisfactory attempts have been made to find conversions rates for pre-U, IB and A level. At GCSE this will only get worse, with some schools having letter grades for iGCSEs alongside the new 1-9 GCSE scoring system. Ask yourself too if all grades are being declared or indeed if pupils destined not to bring credit to a school have been ‘managed out’ of taking certain subjects: it has been known to happen. Overall, strive not to confuse exams with education. It’s the latter that you want a school to have at the heart of its ethos and that’s a much bigger and more important thing than just passing exams. 


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