How to Assess a School’s Academic Performance
We are often asked by parents which League Table is the most trustworthy and how important exam results are. Although we are firmly of the belief that a school cannot be judged on academics alone, we thought it might be helpful to answer some frequent questions regarding league tables. If you would like to know what other factors you should consider when choosing a school, please visit our blog on ‘How to Choose a British Independent School for my Child.’
What is the most useful academic measure when comparing schools?
The two most popular comparative measures are GCSE and A level / IB results. Most schools publish the percentage of their students’ grades that are 9-7 at GCSE (equivalent of A*/A), and A*-A/B at A level.
To give you an idea, here are some representative school exam results from 2022.
|A Level A*- A (IB)
|Cheltenham Ladies College
The best way of comparing schools by these grades is to go onto the school’s websites, on which most of them list the last few years of such results. As an example, here are the exam results from St Paul’s School.
A few important points are worth bearing in mind:
- Small year groups will mean that individual scores will have a disproportionate effect on the overall percentage. For example, Heathfield only has 40 pupils in its sixth form whereas a larger school such as Cheltenham Ladies College has 323 in the sixth form. This means that a lower A level grade at Heathfield will pull the overall percentage down more than a low grade at Cheltenham Ladies College.
- Your child is not a percentage. The difference between a school in which 85% of children’s grades are A*s and one in which 90% are A*s is not statistically significant when it comes to your own child. Percentages should be seen as a general guide; it is then up to your child to transcend their statistical destiny! Remember that many schools that promote a genuinely intellectual climate also offer a range of other extracurricular activities that will broaden the interests of a student (societies and clubs, national or international academic competitions etc.) that do not show up in academic performance data but enhance the holistic education of your child.
- GCSE vs. A level Rankings. Rankings using A levels can sometimes be slightly misleading for several reasons. At A Level, the number of students taking each subject can be quite different. As such, for the more niche subjects, you should look at the results for that specific subject as the overall average may not be as applicable.
- Sixth Form Intake. Some single-sex schools are introducing girls into the school for sixth form. This new intake, who are often more academically able on average than the pupils already at the school, may explain why the A level results are more impressive than the GCSE results.
- Schools that also offer the IB as well as A levels. One should also note that schools that offer both the IB and A level are harder to directly compare with schools that only offer A level. This is because it is hard to know what reflects a particular school or what reflects a subsegment of the school that chooses A level rather than IB. In certain cases, abler students may choose the IB which detracts from the overall A level statistics potentially affecting the A*/A percentage.
- What grades best illustrate academic excellence? To rank the top-performing academic schools in the country, it is useful to compare the A* percentage alone as the A*/A percentage for these schools may be similar. The difference between attaining an A and A* with regards to proficiency in the subject is substantial.
- Oxbridge Offers - Another good measure for academic excellence is, of course, the number of Oxbridge offers won by pupils each year from a particular school. However, this can be more of a reflection of the selectiveness of a school’s intake as opposed to the actual quality of teaching, especially for Sixth Form intake. It is also important to consider the average number of Oxbridge offers over several years as cohorts can fluctuate hugely from year to year.
Which are the most useful league tables?
If you want to avoid going through individual school websites, we recommend the following league tables for comparing multiple schools at once.
GCSE League Table
A Level League Table
- London PrePrep (London only) A-Level results 2019: top London secondary schools
- The Telegraph:Best independent schools in the UK: Compare league table results for A-levels
- Best Schools:Top 100 Independent Schools by A Levels and Pre U
- The Times – ParentPower 2023
IB League Table
Best Schools: Top Independent IB Schools
*It is important to note that some schools do not take part in public league tables because they feel that it leads parents to make decisions based on data in the abstract without considering the full life of a school. Harrow School is a notable absentee from league tables.
For more information, please look at our blog that compares the IB and A level.