An aid for parents, a tool for school improvement or an opportunity to see how your school is doing against competitor schools. League tables have been used and abused by those in and around schools in the UK for over 25 years. Schools tend to put them on their websites when they paint a positive picture but tuck them away when things are not so rosy. So where does Dean Close feature and what does it tell us about the quality of the education on offer?

The Times Parent Power table appears in The Sunday Times almost every weekend. It uses raw academic results to show where schools sit according to their type. This year, Dean Close School squeezes into the Top 20 of Independent Schools in the South West. This is thanks to some impressive results at GCSE this year but things would have been better if our A Level results had been as strong as normal. However, it is important to notice how many of the schools in the Top 20 come from areas that include state funded grammar schools – just Cheltenham Ladies College and Dean Close School. This has a significant impact on the raw ability of the intake.

What other questions should be asked about raw academic results league tables?

1. Why aren’t all schools in the league tables? Some independent schools make principled decisions not to take part in the league tables. Just because they’re not there, doesn’t necessarily suggest anything sinister is going on.

2. How do you compare schools who take different qualifications? (GCSE, IGCSE, IB, A Levels, BTEC)

3. Do some schools dissuade pupils who are not going to get positive results to withdraw from a subject to protect league table positions?

So if raw academic league tables depend on the other schools, different curricula, “gaming” exam entries and whether or not schools choose to share their data, is there a better way?

On the face of it, value added league tables should demonstrate the improvement that a school makes to the educational outcomes of its pupils. How much are they adding? The compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk website seeks to provide parents with that data. This year, as with previous years, Dean Close comes out on top in Gloucestershire with improvement at 16-18. On many levels, this is a great endorsement of the work of pupils and staff but on other levels, so we should. With the size of our classes, resources available, time that a boarding school culture affords, expert teachers and very engaged parents we have many things in our favour. But there are other factors to consider:

1. How do highly academically selective schools with outstanding results at GCSE add value?

2. How do you compare schools with different curricula?

3. How much context is truly taken into account? How do you quantify parental influence?

4. How do you capture the value of an outstanding co-curricular programme?

Dean Close, like all modern schools, are increasingly effective at using data to highlight areas where they can improve. Sometimes that is flagging consistent patterns of concern that are in need of intervention such as particular pupil groups or subjects. At others it enables staff to provide additional support to pupils who may appear to be doing okay, but are actually in danger of underperforming. The data rarely provides answers, but it certainly helps us ask questions. That is the benefit that school league tables give to parents. They are not going to tell them which school is the right one for their child, but they may give some food for thought and questions to ask the Head.