Renowned for the finest private schools in the world, Venetia van Kuffeler investigates how parents can identify the best options for their child in the UK
The UK’s reputation as the home of the world’s best private schools is very much intact. The combination of academic success and development of well-rounded, globally-connected individuals saw a new record high of 529,164 students enrolled across the UK’s 1,326 Independent Schools Council members in 2018.
Parents looking to send their children to the best schools in the UK are often lighter on information than they realise, and almost always short on the time required to extensively research suitable options. Many will immediately direct their attention to one of the world-famous heritage schools, such as Eton, Harrow, St Paul’s, Winchester, Cheltenham Ladies’, or Rugby. Other parents will begin by looking for schools with the top academic results, understandably assuming that the best schools produce the best academic results.
However, some of the ‘big name’ schools require students to register three to five years in advance, and most will be severely over-subscribed and competitive on admissions. Parents lacking the luxury of such long lead-in times or strong connections to the elite schools are most likely to discover that, on further investigation, there is a vast and incredibly diverse range of private school provision. Figuring out how to identify the best schools can seem an overwhelming process. So, where to begin?
It is almost impossible to begin considerations without stumbling across school league tables or ranking systems. School positions across the various league tables can fluctuate wildly, so it is first important to figure out exactly what these tables are showing and, perhaps less obviously, what they are not showing. For example, a number of the elite schools do not allow their results to be published in the national press, so are absent from the annual reports in UK broadsheet publications. Furthermore, these tables often conflate the different curriculums: GCSE, iGCSE, A-level, Pre-U, and IB results are often thrown together, leading to a vague and somewhat random ranking.
Best-schools.co.uk is a website run by UK-based education consultants, Education Advisers Ltd, and each year it publishes league tables of private schools’ academic results. For clarity, 12 tables are published, dividing schools by curriculum, day or boarding, and co-ed or single sex schools. Founder and MD Les Webb explains, “We manage to get hold of 99 per cent of schools’ exam results in the end, though we tend to publish our tables a couple of months after results day, allowing for re-marks and the extra investigation required. We believe parents are entitled to assess and compare any school’s academic performance through a transparent presentation of academic results.”
Indeed, in these data-centric times, it would appear that an ever-increasing number of parents focus their attention on academic results and league table rankings. But is this really the best method to evaluate institutions famed for a focus on personal development?
Tim Haynes, retiring Head of Tonbridge Boys’ School has been a regular recipient of best-schools’ annual crystal awards for the top performing UK private schools. He explains: “We’re always delighted to receive awards, which are testament to the high academic standards achieved by our staff and students. However, such rankings do not display our equally high standards in sport, music and the arts, or the values and behaviours our students develop here.”
Webb accepts that, whilst the league tables offer comprehensive and accurate data, they do not tell the whole tale of how these results are actually achieved. “Naturally, the highest-ranking schools are massively over-subscribed, and will only admit the highest-achieving students through incredibly competitive entry tests and interviews. It should be no surprise that the end results are academically outstanding. On the other hand, there are plenty of schools which offer support for a wider range of student abilities, and some will support special educational needs like dyslexia or cater for students with English as a second language. Such schools will inevitably appear lower down the rankings but will be far more suitable choices for certain students.”
In addition, the pressure to maintain a school’s ranking can come with some unforeseen consequences. Webb explains, “Some of the top-ranked schools prioritise academic achievement to such an extent, that they can neglect students’ exposure to sports, arts, music, and all the extra-curricular activities that British private schools are so revered for.”
Professor Mark Bailey, High Master of St Paul’s School, insists that high academic standards and personal development are certainly not mutually exclusive. The school regularly tops the academic league tables but, according to Professor Bailey, maintains the balance between academic achievement and personal development “by the messages it sends, the routines it adopts, the time and resources it allocates to both, the support structures in place, and the extent to which it celebrates the latter.”
Despite such sentiments from these top-ranking schools, some parents still see exam results as the be-all and-end-all, a perspective particularly prevalent amongst international families. This parental demand is arguably driving the increased presence of specialist sixth form colleges at the top of the UK league tables. These schools and colleges make it very clear upon entry that, should students not maintain the required academic standards, they may be asked to leave midway through their studies. Such practices may seem cut-throat but allow a school or college to maintain exam success amongst the remaining body of students.
Yasmin Sarwar is Chief Education Officer at Oxford International College, which provides an intense academic sixth form experience before university. Specialising in STEM subjects and with a primarily international roll call of students, 2017 saw the college receive five Oxbridge offers and a 100 per cent success rate on Medical School applications. With more applicants than spaces available, Sarwar acknowledges, “Our admissions decisions are based on both academic merit and future potential. Being a predominantly international sixth form college, we have many deserving applicants with different educational backgrounds, who may be unable to present past academic records due to being educated within national education systems.” Explaining that the occasional student will not progress to the second year of A-levels, Sarwar adds, “We expect all students to perform consistently well academically throughout their first year, and academic and pastoral support is always available to those who need it.”
Webb readily admits that ‘misplacements’ form a key part of his company’s work. “On a given year, roughly 10- 20 per cent of our clients are families who have discovered their child is in an ill-fitting private school, be it an academic or cultural mismatch. We usually discover that families were focusing on the wrong things and have to start afresh to find the right academic and personal fit.”
Considering the nuances that league tables do not tell us, it seems fair to state that whilst providing a useful snapshot, rankings cannot be used in isolation when identifying the best school for an individual. So, what are the more qualitative considerations required to find the best school?
Webb, whose company offers bespoke advice on families’ UK private school choice, explains, “We encourage clients to think more along the lines of ‘best-fit’ for a particular child. Of course, the academic level needs to be aspirational, but it also needs to be right: students need to be pushed to achieve their potential, but not under so much stress that they are clinging on by their fingernails – schools are there to build a child’s confidence, not destroy it! On top of this, curriculum, coed or single-sex, specialist facilities, and location will all play a part. One key aspect parents consistently overlook is the culture or ethos of a school. Is it progressive or overtly traditional? Is there a large emphasis on religion? Parents should consider what characteristics and behaviours a school aims to develop, as these experiences will influence personalities and like-minded networks that stay with children well into adulthood.”
“Most importantly,” Webb concludes, “if a child is comfortable and happy in their school environment, they will likely achieve their potential and grow into well rounded, confident individuals.”
All considered, it seems reasonable to conclude that finding the ‘best-fit’ school does not begin by ploughing through reams of data and shiny prospectuses or charging off to randomly-selected open day events. Perhaps the best place to begin is with your child, identifying their academic profile and personality, and creating a well-considered school wish-list of preferences and priorities. Always keep the end goal in mind and remember that a child will inevitably achieve their best when they are happy and stimulated. For all the competitive ambition, for all the demand for academic achievement, the vast majority of parents will still place their child’s happiness as the top-ranking priority.
The full range of 2017 league tables can be found at www.best-schools.co.uk alongside a range of eGuides on how to choose prep, senior, boarding schools, and sixth form colleges. Education Advisers Ltd also offers a bespoke consultancy service to help families find the right school options for their children.