Do rankings really matter?

Overseas-education | Pat Moores 29 Jun 2021

As anyone who works in pupil recruitment knows, school rankings are referenced by many Hong Kong families who believe that they provide the best guide to assessing UK boarding schools. In this article, we look at why this might be a flawed approach.

Major rankings referenced by many parents are devised predominantly from public exam results.

Of course, academic success in GCSE, A-Level and IB exams is very important, but it is important to look behind these figures.

Often, schools achieve high grades due to their selective admissions processes.

Many mainstream boarding schools in the UK, with a majority of domestic pupils, seem highly desirable because of their high exam results, but the entrance tests for these schools often demand a very high level of English competence to ensure that international pupils can, from day one, fully engage in classes taught 100 percent in English.

Sometimes, these schools do not offer extensive English as an additional language teaching.

International schools, with a far higher level of overseas students, often have far less selective recruitment criteria, reflecting the fact that many of their pupils need to develop their English language skills before they can excel academically. Disadvantaged by the current ranking system, many have chosen not to be included in the tables as a result.

Mike Oliver from Brooke House College, a small school with many international students, said: "Rankings simply fail to mention whether or not the school has all of its pupils studying in English as a second language. This significantly disadvantages schools like Brooke House that are less selective in recruitment terms and strongly focus on English language alongside pure academic development."

The pandemic has increased the reliance on rankings, as it has been hard for Hong Kong parents and their children to visit the UK and see schools in person to make more nuanced judgments.

However, Caroline Nixon, director of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students argued: "Schools with more international pupils that often have less selective admissions policies and greater support for English as an additional language are penalized by many high-profile rankings.

"There needs to be a greater appreciation that the journey for a student moving from a D to a B grade is every bit as impressive as a straight-A student."

Even some highly ranked UK schools are now questioning whether the benefits of appearing in rankings outweigh the negatives. England's highest-ranked small independent school for A-Level results, Truro High School for Girls, has announced it is withdrawing from exam league tables, citing concerns over students' mental well-being.

Headmistress Sarah Matthews said: "The culture of comparison so prevalent in today's society is damaging. We want our students to have their own goals and to become the best they can be, not to judge themselves against someone else."

Indeed, it is easy to argue that measuring the academic "progress" of the children during their time at the school is a far more valuable indicator for parents.

"There are league tables showing value added rankings, which show how well a school helps its students to progress," said Nixon.

But "even these don't show the value added to skills outside the narrowly academic - valuable ones such as teamwork, leadership and linguistic and cultural acquisition."

Of course, the counter-argument is that rankings are tangible measurements that are relatively easy for parents to access. However, schools can help make decision making more balanced by providing more information about how else their school is different from the school down the road.

We are often told by parents that they find it very hard to distinguish one school from another and this is particularly the case for international parents, who are trying to make decisions remotely and may never get to visit the UK before a decision has to be made.

There is also a responsibility for education agents to point out the limitations of the ranking system to parents. Too often agents shy away from confronting this issue and this perpetuates the problem.

The market is also changing and now is a good time to challenge the status quo.

More parents, who have perhaps experienced high-pressure learning environments themselves, also appear to be wanting a different, more rounded educational experience for their own children. One parent, Jie, is considering UK education options for her own child at the moment.

"The old Chinese-style parenting mantra was: 'Don't let your child lose on the starting line.' But I think it is time to rethink what is the definition of real success for the children themselves," she said.

"It is time to think about how to provide a good and supportive family/educational environment; a growing atmosphere for their unique progress; a happy and warm care to develop their real interests. Perhaps these are the starting lines in the true sense."

Adam Williams, headmaster of Lord Wandsworth College, agreed. The world is changing, the skills required for success are changing and Chinese parents' aspirations are changing too, he noted.

"It's about your journey. The world that lies ahead is one where being curious, creative, tech-savvy, collaborative and emotionally intelligent are key factors. One would also add critical/analytical thinking. Where are the league tables for those skills? Exam results don't get a look in."

Pat Moores is the director and co-founder of UK Education Guide, a 100 percent independent guide to UK education providers. www.ukeducations.com



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