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It’s one of those questions which should have a fairly obvious answer; how much should parents rely on league tables when selecting a school?

Common sense would dictate that there are clearly other areas to warrant concern; areas that should be considered of equal importance to where a school ranks academically. But how many parents actually act on this?

According to Mike Buchanan, chairman-elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, parents should not choose top schools for the “bragging rights” associated with high league table positions.

He said “sensible” parents need to put their child’s happiness first and ignore the “marketing spin” that comes with league tables.

Today, the experts discuss what parents should really be looking at. Get in touch with your own education question and see it featured on Telegraph Education (details below).

Question: How much should we rely on league tables?

We are trying to decide which secondary school will best suit our son and are wondering how much we should rely on league tables to make this decision. There has been a lot in the press recently that suggests we shouldn’t be looking, but surely academic achievement is important?

Vivienne Durham: Use league tables as one indicator of many

The answer to your question is – yes and no. Annual league tables provide statistical data about examination performance, normally at GCSE and A-level.

As you may be aware, there are also different versions of the annual league tables: for example, some league tables provide comparative data, others offer correlation between the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A-level performance.

Schools with very few pupils can be disproportionately affected in certain league tables by exceptional results by one or two students.

The DfE provides annual statistics for all maintained schools. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) collates data, including examination results, on schools in the independent sector. ISC examination statistics are regularly updated after the initial publication every August, to incorporate GCSE or A-level re-marks.

“As we all know, statistics can be used to prove anything, including the much vaunted ‘value-added.’” Vivienne Durham

Above all, league tables reflect how academically selective – or not – a school is, at entry. As we all know, statistics can be used to prove anything, including the much vaunted “value-added” – ie how much progress children make during their school career. Be wary of inflated claims.

Almost every head will tell you that education is about far more than just examination results. For this reason, a significant number of independent schools, including those with superlative academic results, have long opted out of national league tables.

My advice is to use league tables as one indicator of many in making the decision about your son’s secondary school.

Visit the school with your son, ideally more than once. Talk to current pupils and parents, meet the head, check the subject options available at GCSE and A-level, look at the university destinations of leavers and decide whether the opportunities available both inside the classroom and beyond will offer an exciting and challenging education for your son.

Vivienne Durham, schools advisory director at Enjoy Education and former head at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park

Ed Conway: The first question in your mind must always be ‘is my son going to be happy here’

Choosing the right secondary school for your son is going to be one of the most important decisions in his life to date.

Yes, academic performance should be a key consideration but the first question in your mind must always be ‘is my son going to be happy here’, and I say that not just as a head teacher but as a dad as well.

If you do decide to place a lot of importance on the academic performance of the school, you have got to ask yourself honestly, ‘is my son academically gifted?’ If he is, great. A school with an academic focus will push him and he’ll excel.

If academia is not his thing, you run the risk of placing him in a school where he will feel permanently out of his depth.

To me, your question goes to the crux of what we see as the purpose of education. For me, a school shouldn’t just be an exam factory, it should be there to provide a complete education for the whole child.

“To me, your question goes to the crux of what we see as the purpose of education. For me, a school shouldn’t just be an exam factory” Ed Conway

On that, ask yourself what extra-curricular activities does your son enjoy? Is he sporty, musical? These are the groups where he will make friends, build his character and give him the most pleasure during his time at secondary school.

If there is one thing that decades in teaching has taught me, it’s that happy pupils are the most successful ones.

So what to do? Never miss an opportunity to visit a school on open days, and never be afraid to ask to visit a school during normal hours to see what life is really like there.

Speak to parents, teachers and children, look at what facilities they have and what extra-curricular programmes they offer.

In the fore-front of you mind keep asking, ‘will my son enjoy being here?’ and then trust your gut. Exam league tables are a useful guide but they are not the be all and end all.

Ed Conway, head teacher of St Michael’s Catholic High School in Watford

Susan Hamlyn: The sensible approach is to see league tables as a blunt instrument

Academic achievement – both of the school and of each individual pupil – is, of course, important. The question is whether academic league tables are a useful tool in determining whether your son is more likely to succeed and be happy at any one rather than any other school.

There are two points here. The first is that schools which are highly selective at entry are, of course, going to gain high marks in the public exams – the exams which determine a school’s place in a league table.

If you only accept into your school children who achieve 70 per cent or more in your entry tests, they are not likely to fare badly later on. If you only have bright children in your school, you can teach quickly, without stopping for stragglers and – on paper at least – everyone should achieve highly.

“If you only accept into your school children who achieve 70 per cent or more in your entry tests, they are not likely to fare badly later on” Susan Hamlyn

But this does not necessarily mean that the teaching – and the whole school experience – is of the highest calibre. Such schools can “coast” on the strength of their pupils.

The second reason to be wary of league tables is that they use a great variety of criteria on which to base their rankings. Numbers of A*/A grades; or A*-C grades; or A*-C including English and maths – and so on.

How do you evaluate a school which enters 20 pupils against one that enters 300? Or a sixth form table where some pupils take A-levels, some take the International Baccalaureate and some the Pre-U?

So – the sensible approach is to see league tables as a blunt instrument and only one of the tools you have to assess whether a school is right for your son.

A school which, year on year, is in the higher ranks of a league table is clearly doing something right in terms of results. But a school – in which you may spend five or seven formative years – must offer far more than that.

Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide Advice Service

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