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08 May 2019
by Ferdinand Steinbeis

English Boarding Schools and rankings: how useful are league-tables?

Hello from Oxfordshire!
At von Bülow Education we regularly get asked by families how significant the league-tables are and how an English boarding school we are discussing, ranks.
Here, we would like to share our opinion on Englisch boarding schools and rankings.
(Spoiler alert: we aren’t fans.)
Clayesmore School's art department
But first...
School rankings - what exactly are they?
Every year, the English broadsheet newspapers The Times and The Telegraph publish their by now (in)famous schools league tables. In these league tables, the lionshare of state and independent schools - which includes boarding schools, of course - get ranked according to their exam results in GCSE, A-Level and IB results.
For many families looking for a new school, these league table results are the first port- of-call. We have it on good authority that some families take how a school ranks as the single most important variable in their decision-making for or against the school.
Clayesmore School's reception room
What are school rankings actually good for?
Yes, school rankings are an indicator for how well a school is doing. After all, exam results are one of the few hard, published facts about a school’s performance.
Also, school rankings are an easy shorthand to compare schools. School A has better A-Level results than School B? School A it is! Easy, right?
Malvern College's art department
Why we at von Bülow Education are not fans of school rankings.
We have several issues with using school league tables to decide on the merit of a school. Here they are in no particular order:
1) They are too narrow.
A school’s exam results are too narrow and crude to tell the much more complex story of a school’s quality, achievements and character.
What about the quality of the extracurricular activities? The sports, the music and the drama on offer? How about the pastoral care? How about soft-skills development like leadership and resilience?
We would sincerely hope that no family sends their child to a school purely to churn out the best possible exam results!
2) They say more about selection than quality.
Most of the top-performing schools are highly selective at entry. Only pupils with top marks will be invited to apply. Then it’s hardly rocket-science: if you only accept children that achieve a high mark in your entry tests, chances are very high that they will also do well at their GCSEs, A-Levels or the IB - irrespective of what the school does or doesn’t do!
Also, if you only have academically bright kids, you can teach more quickly and thus cover much more ground, prepare for exams better and ultimately everyone should perform well.
3) They are easily distorted.
Rankings are statistics. And statistics are prone to distortions.
How do you evaluate a school with 20 IB exam-takers against one with 200? An outlier performance - both an extremely good result and an outlandishly bad result by one individual pupil - will disproportionately impact the school with a smaller IB cohort much more than the school with the larger one.
4) They are incomplete.
Not everyone participates: some top schools like Sevenoaks School and Eton College among others, have opted out of being ranked for years now. With these important omissions, the league tables lose in relevance significantly.
5) But most importantly - they say nothing about suitability.
Unless you are 100% convinced that all you want from a school is academic prowess, the school rankings will only tell you little about a school’s suitability for your child.
How likely will your child succeed at a school? Where will she/he be happiest? The school rankings won’t be able to tell you.
So, are we saying you should completely ignore school rankings? No. By all means take a look and include them as one data-point amid many other data-points. BUT never use rankings as a substitute for visiting schools. A visit will give you essential insights about actual academic quality. Meeting the teachers and pupils, sitting in on a maths class, hearing the headmaster talk about his vision for the school - all this will be infinitely more valuable to gauge academic prowess, and most importantly, whether a school is right for your child.
We hope this helps! Please come talk to us if you want to discover more about this topic.
Yours von Bülow Education

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