If there is one change I could make to the educational landscape right now, it would be to the prevalence of school league tables. As Bernard Trafford, headmaster of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle wrote recently in the TES, ‘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’.
When parents are considering Cheadle Hulme School for their son or daughter, I ask what it is that they really seek for their child; the answer most often is ‘I want them to be happy.’ Quite right too – so do we all. Parents are also right to thoroughly explore the schools they are considering, but being armed with league table data is not the most valuable nor informative measure of a school. And the reason for this is, as Dr Trafford implies, that there is no context to the information.
For many of us, happiness is synonymous with ‘success’ and in education ‘success’ is measured by most in academic outcomes. The student is reduced to a statistic, and a judgement made of that number (the child) with no other information about them. 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 / below expectation; no sense of their broader achievements or their character. No sense of whether they were happy at school.
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 who are not in the topmost echelons remain quiet as if they have something to hide. The worse position is perhaps reserved for those who are not in the top flight and talk critically about league tables (‘O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; / It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on’). Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound…
Happiness matters. And I believe that feeling ‘successful’ contributes significantly to being happy. The problem is that when success is reduced down to a very narrow set of criteria and lacks context in addition, many young people can be made to feel, and be perceived to be, comparatively unsuccessful, when this is far from the truth.
Three years ago, Cheadle Hulme School staff discussed what a successful education looks like. For us all, the focus immediately went to the end of the school process, the output – the kind of person the education helps to shape. The discussion centred upon qualities, values and skills; academic achievement featured of course, but the overwhelming view of these educational professionals was that it is the person that matters.
For Cheadle Hulme School, the educational happy ending is three-pronged with each young person having fulfilled their academic potential; discovered and developed new skills, interests and aptitudes and understood and engaged with their altruistic responsibility, supporting others less fortunate than themselves.
None of the above comes with a full stop. Schools are training grounds where young people learn about themselves and about others, getting things wrong, getting things right, whilst taking increasing responsibility for themselves and their outcomes. They complete their schooling so that they can be successful in the arena proper, whatever and wherever that might be.
So to measure any school solely on data that lacks context is to miss out on the bigger picture of what it is achieving for and by its students.
As parents seek happiness for their sons and daughters, it’s important that they are honest about what this happiness really looks like. Every child should be stretched and challenged in their academic work, enabling them to achieve their best; every child should feel cared for and supported in their learning and in themselves, and every child should be encouraged to discover their interests and talents in a range of activities and pastimes.
There is no measure for such success that would ever satisfy a government league table; but you can gauge a school’s success and impact by meeting with its students, talking to its staff and learning about its ethos and values to satisfy oneself. Choosing the right school is as much about instinct as it is anything else and yet too often we allow a set of statistics to exert the greatest influence.
To all those about to engage in the process of school selection I say, ‘Be brave and trust your instinct.’
Read more on the blog.