The publication of the official government League Tables each January –as well as the newspaper versions that follow the summer publication of public exam results- brings good news to very many independent schools.
Interestingly, my recent experience is that parents seem to have a more sceptical view of what league tables can demonstrate about a school (and seem correspondingly more interested in questions of values and ethos), but it is nonetheless hard to resist the temptation to at least breathe down the school’s trumpet when the stats fall well!
Normally, I don’t make much of League Tables. Despite the success of my own school by most measures, we do not use such things overtly in our publicity and PR because we believe that promoting the values and processes that produce such great results is much more what we’re about as a school, and that such tabulated success is only one measure of the quality of what this (or any) school produces.
So, it’s interesting -but not unpredictable- to see this government under the current Secretary of State for Education introduce a new measure into the tables for the first time this year. It’s a measure of the percentage of 18 year olds who achieved overall grades AAB or better in so-called ‘facilitating subjects’, or traditional academic subjects as defined by the top universities. These institutions would usually expect at least two of those subjects to have been taken for most of their degree courses. The list is made up of Maths, English, the three major Sciences, History, Geography and Modern/Classical languages.
The Government, however, is judging schools by whether students studied these subjects in all three of their A-levels.
Why? By what logic does having taught more pupils for this narrow range of admittedly very important subjects indicate that one school is providing a better or more successful education than another?
Surely, the role of any school is to help each and every student to discover his or her particular strengths and interests, whatever those might be, and enable that individual to build a path to the future that exploits those. If a child wants to pursue a musical career, or become an artist or an actor, or develop a business and a school helps them to achieve that ambition, why is that of any less value to the individual -and therefore, arguably to society as a whole- than the production of Further Mathematicians, Biologists and Geographers? Why does the school that promotes this broader philosophy risk a lesser ranking than a school where students might perhaps be guided into doing subjects that may be unsuitable for them?
And why is Philosophy not considered a ‘hard’ or ‘pure’ subject? And Economics? And Government and Politics? The irony of this is fascinating. Given the proportion of Mr Gove’s colleagues in the cabinet who studied PPE at Oxford, I wonder how many of them would have passed the three-A-levels-in-facilitating-subjects-at-grades-AAB test…according to Wikipedia (health warnings apply) the Prime Minister wouldn’t: his A-levels were History of Art, History, and Economics (with Politics), so he scores one out of three. The implication is that Eton must clearly have failed him, as it must have done so many others!
At my school -in common with so many HMC schools- we believe that the success of what we provide cannot adequately be measured by any league table, and certainly not by any that seem to rank schools by such a questionable and arbitrary criterion as the three facilitating subjects measure. If we are able to (and with true independence we should be) we will not be changing our policy on the A-levels we offer or promote under this or any new system to be introduced in 2015.
Rather, we will continue to strive to help each student pursue the path that is going to bring him or her greatest chance of true fulfilment and a flourishing future.
Judge us on that, because that’s what we’re here for.
By Christopher Jeffery, Headmaster, The Grange School