Why School League Tables Are Misleading Parents

Parents are right to be researching schools more extensively than ever before in making choices for their child’s education.  But how much attention should they place on school league table data as part of the information gathering process?  League tables are not necessarily an informative measure of a school’s effectiveness and success – in fact, it can be completely misleading.

The problem with league tables is that they do nothing more than present exam results. As one Headmaster writes, “All schools should publish their exam results to parents, but as soon as the figures are out in the open they’re turned into league tables. Attempts to make the data sensitive to context are doomed to fail”.  The league tables are purely based on data and students are reduced to simple statistics.  There is no context about the character of the school’s pupil population, social or economic factors that can impact a child’s attainment or the bigger picture of what a school is achieving in the broader sense of a holistic education.

In recent years, many top British boarding schools are electing to opt out of league table participation.  These schools are confident in the education they provide to their students, which is far more than just exam grades.  League tables do not show the value-add made to a student’s academic potential, the quality of its classroom teaching or how its inspirational staff can be impacting and mentoring young people.  They also do not take into account where students eventually go for higher education, the career paths that they choose or soft skills they have learnt which prepare them for the workplace and later life.

When parents are asked what they really seek for their child, the answer is most often: “I want them to be happy”.  For many of us, happiness is synonymous with success.  The problem with league tables is they condense a school’s success into the number of top grades a school’s cohort achieve in a given year (A*/A  or 9s & 8s).  There is no sense of their working habits (“lower” grades are seen to be indicative of “lower” ability or poor work ethic), no sense of whether these results are above, in line with or below expectation for that individual, no sense of the values which a child has developed as they have grown into a young adult, no sense of their broader achievements, no sense of whether that child was happy at school.

Moreover, every family has their own criteria for what they are looking for in a school.  Visiting schools can be far more informative to prospective parents than an arbitrary benchmark of a league table.  Meeting current students, observing lessons, speaking with staff and learning about daily life in a school can help parents decide (often instinctively!) whether it is the right school for their child.

Schools themselves, of course, do not help the situation; many place great importance on their ranking within the league tables and trumpet their placing each year, whilst those not in the top 10 remain quiet as if they have something to hide.  It is time to recognise that being successful in life is more than having a string of top grades and say “Bye Bye” to league tables once and for all.