Top secondary schools are more than just good exam grades


Classlist CEO Susan Burton, explains why more secondary schools deserve the Sunday Times’ ‘best in class’ accolade.

Every year, The Sunday Times publishes a 20-page pullout  called: “Parent Power Best in class – your guide to the best secondary schools”. It sets out a leaderboard of secondary schools in both the private and the independent sector.

And according to Zoe Thomas, “Measured by exam grades alone, there is not much in it when comparing Britain’s top-performing schools.”

School league tables

Headlines that refer to “best in class” are always going to attract readership. This is one of a number of Sunday Times’ parent power ranking tables published during the course of the year. I am curious why the Sunday Times calls its league tables Parent Power? 

In many ways British parents have a lot of power, with possibly the widest choice of schools of any other country. I’ve lived in many countries and nowhere do groups of parents discuss which school and why, as much as the British. This could boil down to the luxury of so many options, special needs, academies, faith schools. Or of inequity, as Professor Alan Smithers states “Parent Power’s tables for secondary schools bring out huge regional disparity”.

By way of contrast, in other countries schools aren’t such an obsession or even a topic of conversation, as most families in the world simply attend their local school which is a similar standard within a district or region.

Looking beyond exam results

Given the variety and range of schools in the UK an independent report comparing schools’ academic performance helps to make school leadership accountable and in theory empowers parents in choosing a school.

The flaw in this approach however, is that leaderboards and comparative tables like this are measuring what is ‘best’ as they openly declare, based on one metric – academic results or even more narrowly, by exam grades.

We are pleased that over 1/5th of the top secondary schools listed are using Classlist to ‘power’ their communities. We also believe there are hundreds of amazing schools that are missing from a more broadly defined best school list.

Focusing on exam grades alone seems to contrast with all the attention and press coverage on the importance of our children’s mental health and well being. With the advent of artificial intelligence, our children’s futures will be determined as much by their emotional intelligence as their academic performance. Shouldn’t there be a leaderboard that ranks schools by a set of metrics that helps parents decide which is the best school for their child emotionally and socially too?

Measuring school success

At Classlist, we’re helping schools to build thriving communities and raise money to fill some of the school funding gap. Thriving communities comprise parents forming deep supportive relationships with each other and working in partnership with school staff. This in turn leads to pupils being able to form friendships, participate in school community events and gain experience in volunteering. These seem like valuable indicators of how a school contributes to a pupil’s future success.

At Classlist we track school community health. We use metrics such as:

  • The percentage and frequency of parents engaged in their school community;
  • How many schools are running community events and the levels of participation;
  • The contributor/consumer ratio, which is an industry standard community metric. Schools with a score above 10% ratio have a healthy community for example;
  • The number of class reps and volunteers in a school are also good indicators of healthy communities. More than ten reps in a school tends to correlate with a positive community; and
  • The level of funds raised from parents is an indicator but the breadth of donations and volunteer time across its school constituency are even better measures.

There is a saying ‘knowledge is power, information is power’. In today’s world we can build up data-sets that look beyond just academic performance. Let’s really supercharge parent power by raising the bar on understanding what makes a top secondary school. Give those schools that focus on more than exam results the recognition they deserve. Start to add to the mix metrics around community health, community participation, and pupil happiness and well being.

We look forward to the Sunday Times’ Parent Power asking for our nominations next time!

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