What value do school rankings provide international families?
“Even some highly ranked schools are now questioning whether the benefits of appearing in rankings outweigh the negatives”
As anyone who works in international student and pupil recruitment knows, rankings are revered by many families who believe that they alone provide the ultimate ‘judge’ of whether a school is desirable or not.
However, should this perception be challenged more than it is?
Major rankings are devised predominantly from public exam results and, of course, high grades are important. However, these grades are often achieved due to the highly selective admissions policies of many highly ranked schools.
Many international schools that have far less selective recruitment criteria for students, reflecting the fact that many of their pupils need to develop their English language skills before they can excel academically, are particularly disadvantaged by the current ranking system and many choose not to be included.
As Mark Jeynes, director of Bishopstrow School and Padworth College says, “it’s often not clear when looking at the tables, which schools are selective and which are non-selective on entry and league tables would look very different if they published the percentage of a year group actually submitted for specific exams”.
Mike Oliver from Brooke House College, a small school with many international students adds: “Schools with small cohorts can have just one student fail and it can impact the % pass rate by 5% or so, and rankings also fail to mention whether or not the school has all of its pupils studying in English as a second language”.
Even some highly ranked schools are now questioning whether the benefits of appearing in rankings outweigh the negatives. England’s highest-ranked small independent school for A level results, Truro High School for girls has recently announced it is withdrawing from exam league tables citing concerns over students’ mental wellbeing.
Headmistress Sarah Matthews says, “the culture of comparison so prevalent in today’s society is damaging. We want our students to have their own goals and to become the best they can be, not to judge themselves against someone else”.
Ms Matthews adds further context, saying that a journey for a student moving from a D to a B grade is every bit as impressive as a straight-A student.
Indeed, it is easy to argue that measuring the academic ‘progress’ of the children during their time at the school is a far more valuable indicator for parents. “There are league tables showing Value Added rankings which show how well a school helps its students to progress,” says Caroline Nixon, general secretary BAISIS.
“A journey for a student moving from a D to a B grade is every bit as impressive as a straight-A student”
But “ even these don’t show the value added to a child’s skills outside the narrowly academic – valuable skills such as teamwork, leadership and of course linguistic and cultural acquisition,” she adds.
Of course, the counter-argument is that rankings are tangible measurements that are relatively easy for parents to access. However, schools can help make decision making more balanced by providing more information about how else their school is different from the school down the road?
We are often told by parents that they find it very hard to distinguish one school from another and this is particularly the case for international parents who are trying to make decisions remotely and may never get to visit the UK before a school decision has to be made.
There is also a responsibility for agents to point out the limitations of the ranking system to parents. Too often agents shy away from confronting this issue and this perpetuates the problem. The market is also changing and now is a good time to challenge the status quo.
“There is also a responsibility for agents to point out the limitations of the ranking system to parents”
More parents, notably in China, who have experienced high-pressure learning environments themselves, want a different, more rounded educational experience for their own children.
A final word from Adam Williams, headmaster of Lord Wandsworth College: “Speak to any coach in any discipline and they will talk of focussing on making those incremental improvements in one’s own performance, not worrying about what the opposition are doing.
“It’s about your journey. The world that lies ahead is one where being curious, creative, tech-savvy, collaborative and emotionally intelligent are key factors. One would also add critical/analytical thinking. I wonder, where are the league tables for those skills? Exam results don’t get a look in…”
About the author: Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.