Sunday, 14 November 2010

Stating the obvious

Today's Sunday Times carries a feature rather grandiosely entitled "Definitive guide to Britain's top schools": I can't put a link to it, because their site is subscription-only. Although the introductory article by Chris Woodhead (former chief inspector of schools) takes pains to point out that exam results aren't the be-all-and-end-all of what makes a good school, their Top 100 "charts" of schools are based on.... you guessed it: exam result league tables.

The one that caught my eye out of the four published is the Top 100 State Secondary Schools, which ranks them according to A-level and GCSE passes. Of the 101 listed (two tied for 100th place), at a rough count 41 had "grammar" in the name of the school. No-one should be surprised by this: it simply illustrates the truth of the old adage that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and if you take the top x percent of junior school pupil ability as your intake, you have a head start which those schools with an across-the-board ability range simply do not have any realistic chance of catching up, however hard they might try. Incidentally, on that theme, I noticed that only one school out of the Top 100 had "Academy" in its name.

But there are uneasy questions, I think, about the value of publishing something like this. None of the dozen or so state secondary schools in the area where I live got into the Top 100. Does that make them bad schools? Not necessarily, if they make the best of what they've got. But rightly or wrongly, parents latch onto exam result successes as indicative of what they want from their child's school and many will tend to choose it on that basis. And in those areas (the majority) which don't have any form of selection or streaming, that task is arguably made much more difficult, through no particular fault of the schools concerned.

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