June 2013 issue

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Inspections and league tables

With school inspection reports, league tables and school guides, there is a range of external information on UK independent schools. Matthew Knott finds out what schools recommend to agents.

St Leonards-Mayfield was recently inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) and the quality of education on offer here was deemed to be outstanding,” says Tim Eaton, Director of Development at the school, a girls’ independent day and boarding institution in East Sussex. “Why would I not want to draw that to the attention of the agents and families with whom we work? It offers them an objective measure of our quality – a kitemark, if you like,” he adds.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate is the agency tasked by the government with conducting inspections of schools in the eight member associations of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). ISI reports to the Department of Education on the extent to which schools meet their statutory requirements in education and welfare. Schools must be inspected at least every six years and the reports are made publically and freely available online. Within the reports are findings on the success of the school, the quality of academic achievements, the quality of pupils’ personal development, the effectiveness of governance, leadership and management, and the quality of boarding.

Cambridge Tutors College, an international college offering pre-university courses in South London, makes less use of the inspection report in marketing, says Ian Grout, International Development Officer. “We refer to our most recent (and very positive) ISI report in our prospectus and on our website, but rarely make use of it in promoting to agents and parents overseas.”

A number of newspapers and websites publish annual tables of examination results and these are something that schools will often refer agents to. “Truro High School actively promotes its league table rankings to agents and students in countries like Nigeria, Russia and Hong Kong because they clearly want quality education and excellent boarding facilities,” explains Caroline Pascoe at the girls’ school in Cornwall. “According to Best Schools [website], we are rated in the top 50 girls’ boarding schools in the country based on A-level results and we are number one in that league for value for money. Those are both very big selling points for the school internationally.” Pascoe adds exam results need to be matched. “In recent years, we have also invested heavily in our boarding accommodation and that – together with excellent inspection reports – has helped make us very attractive as a British private school in the global marketplace.”

However, Grout advises his agents to be selective when researching results tables. “If agents wish to make use of league tables, we encourage them to look at those produced by the more reputable national newspapers, rather than those produced by organisations which are involved in placing students in schools and colleges,” he says.

Many schools warn agents against making an overall judgement on a school based on examination table positions. “The league tables are more problematic,” says Eaton at St Leonards-Mayfield. “We’re not the sort of school which simply creams off the brightest five per cent of pupils; our approach to selection is more sophisticated than that, and we offer a rigorous academic education to students from a relatively wide ability range. As a consequence, we’re comfortable with our league table position varying from year to year.”

Eaton advises agents to consider other factors, including “value-added scores” – which measure progress against initial test results rather than simply comparing final outcomes. “I’m happy to discuss the league tables with the agents with which we work; I simply ask that they put our ranking into context. We have one of the highest ‘value-added scores’ in the country – top 10 per cent – and that provides the context,” says Eaton.

“We make use of our FT [Financial Times] ranking in promoting to agents and students,” says Grout. “However, we place greater emphasis on our university destinations. This is because we believe that students and parents see entry to a top UK university as an end; A-level grades are a means to that end.” As such, A-level results tables can obscure the bigger picture of university entry, says Grout. “Among those applying to the very top universities, those who go on to obtain the most A* grades are not necessarily the ones who receive offers. The major challenge is getting an offer. The overwhelming majority of pre-A-level applicants receiving offers from Oxbridge or the London School of Economics will meet the conditions of their offer.”

What parents are looking for varies by market, advises Grout. Hong Kong is an example of a market sensitive to rankings, while Nigerian parents are more concerned about safety and security, he says. Ultimately, while inspections and tables provide valuable information, these are only a part of the picture. “Frankly, the best agents we work with are the ones who, like us, are concerned with all of these things: academic rigour, pastoral care, extra-curricular provision, the quality of boarding, preparation for university, EFL tuition, and so forth. They aim to understand the students’ abilities, interests and aspirations, and then match them to the most appropriate school.”

Resources available

The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is the agency responsible for inspecting hundreds of schools in the UK and reporting to the Department of Education on compliance with statutory requirements. The reports are made publically and freely available for agents, parents and students at www.isi.net.

A number of the national daily newspapers in the UK produce league tables based on examination results. These mostly focus on results in A-Level and GCSE examinations and look at factors such as the percentage of students receiving A or A* grades, and the percentage of students receiving five or more grades A-C in GCSEs. Publications include: the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph and the Financial Times. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) provides regularly updated data on examination results for all of its member schools. There are also dedicated guides such as Best Schools and the UK Boarding Schools Guide that provide information about UK independent schools.

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