When quantity meets quality

In an article in The best in Education 2013, HMC Chairman and High Master of The Manchester Grammar School, looks at the qualifications schools achieve and how best to interpret them.

Michael Gove has been faced with a massive challenge: how do we improve standards in poorly performing state schools. Like Lord Adonis before him he looked to the independent sector for both inspiration and assistance: 'we want your DNA' they have said.

Of course, those in government have tended to focus upon academic results when considering the strengths of schools demanding minimum levels of achievement. Yet we all know that the very best schools are not just academically strong, they are also places where the 'co-curricular' life flourishes outside the classroom. Those pupils fully involved  in the co-curriculum (in music, sport, drama, Duke of Edinburgh, or indeed any of the tremendous range of activities typically provided in our independent schools) are also likely to be fully engaged with their curriculum studies.

However, the arena beyond the classroom is much harder to measure than examination results; and as a consequence those charged with the political oversight of the education of our children have concentrated their attention on examination performance. And it is just a short step from this to league tables.

I was fascinated to receive a letter earlier this year from a former pupil on the topic of which who mentioned the league tables published by the Government and reported by the BBC and others. He pointed out the lowly position occupied by his old school. He wondered whether or not the school might be descending into academic obscurity. 

But things are far from what they might seem! The Government's league tables are published in a form capable of many interpretations and the approach taken by its statisticians represents a masterclass in opacity. The BBC chose to produce a rank ordering based on the average 'points per candidate' achieved in each institution. Many newspapers did exactly the same.

This approach significantly benefits those schools which enter candidates for five or more A Levels, typically including General Studies (which few universities here value). There is a good number of state-funded schools in the top 50 or so schools on this measure. This may be because many state institutions receive finance for their sixth forms in direct proportion to the number of their subjects taken: the more subjects taken, the more money provided, and as a knock-on effect, the more points per candidate! A few independent schools enter many of their students for more than four A-level subjects and they too tend to rank highly in this reading of the data.

However, when the rank order is based upon the average 'points per A-level entry' a quite different picture emerges.

On the first reading (points per candidate) we, along with Eton and Haberdashers' Aske's in London appear between 178th and 194th places. Our local state-maintained grammar school 'rivals' here had managed to achieve 44th place. 

On the second reading (points per entry) our school, Eton and Haberdashers', appear in the top 50, but our local rival drops to 343rd place! This points per entry approach rewards higher grades. And there are very few state-maintained schools indeed in the top 50 on this measure.

To sum up: on the first approach, for example, BBBCC is likely to beat AAA; on the second the position is reversed and quality wins out over quantity.

Many high-performing independent schools tend to enter pupils for fewer subjects aiming to develop their independent thinking skills and encouraging them to read around subjects. And so they will tend not to do especially well in tables which focus upon quantity rather than quality.

The Financial Times has from time to time published a table based on the tougher subjects, excluding those which are perceived by academics to be soft options. Again on such measures, independent schools tend to perform not just well when compared to their state-maintained rivals, but incredibly well.

In short, if a school wishes to 'play the system' it can appear to perform - from the 'objective point of view' of a league table - tremendously well. Just put your pupils in for as many subjects as possible and - just to make sure - direct them towards 'softer' subjects. Never mind that as a result they will find it hard to gain places at leading universities. What matters is the banner across the front page of the website telling the world that they are a top-performing school.

Parents who wish to understand the true academic quality of a school must first appreciate that league tables can and do distort the truth; there are lies, damned lies and league tables!

Of course, there are independent schools which play the system just as shamelessly as many in the state sector. But a little probing will reveal their conceits.

Even though independent schools tend to dominate the higher reaches of those tables which rank quality above mere quantity, the DNA of the independent sector has much less to do with academic prowess than a state of mind: an openness to involvement in all that a school can offer and a genuine understanding that education should prepare children for life and not simply examinations. But, critically, schools in the independent sector know that there is no single way in which to work their magic, no 'one-size-fits-all' educational garment which provides the answer.

So, if Michael Gove or any other Secretary of State for Education wants to learn from the independent sector, then he needs to understand that its strength derives in part from its diversity, in part from its focus on the co-curricular life as well as within the classroom, and in part from its commitment to educate children for life beyond examinations.

 Above all he needs to remember that all children are different: they have different needs, that we must understand  each child as an individual if we are to get the very best out of them, and that the very best schools do precisely this.

Dr Chris Ray is High Master of The Manchester Grammar School and Chairman of HMC.