Excellent comments by the Head of Wimbledon High School
The ups and downs of league tables
02 October 2013, posted in Head's Blog
The Ups and Downs of League Tables
As we begin the annual 11+ recruitment season, and I find myself addressing prospective parents and Year 6 girls from many different primary and prep schools every Wednesday morning, I ponder how best to present the academic success of the average WHS student. This is more difficult than it may sound for several reasons, not least of which is the need to generalise: we know that “average” doesn’t really tell the story when it comes to A level results; each student is in a different situation and has a different outcome.
The Class of 2013, who have just gone to university or started their Gap year, are a typically difficult group to describe. On the one hand, they were WHS’s most successful year group in terms of their university places (80% achieved their first choice university and a further 14% got their insurance offer). With the smallest ever group of students going through the clearing process, we can most definitely look on Class of 2013 as being the most successful year as they stride out of the school.
On the other hand, when we look at league tables, the Class of 2013 achieved the lowest A*-B percentage in many years. You might assume that the universities the girls selected were less prestigious and so they got in with lower grades, but this was not the case: destination universities for 2013 differed little to those of previous years, with around 80% of the universities being Russell Group or equivalent.
I have a real choice when it comes to league tables – if I want to see WHS improve its position I could instigate the following practices, which are common to other schools:
I could raise the barrier to entry to 6th form for internal Y11 candidates such that only the very highest achievers would get into our 6th form (e.g., I could require five or more A* grades, and allow no one in with a C grade at GCSE).
I could stop students from selecting certain AS or A level subjects because their natural aptitudes and ability levels suggest they might not get top grades, however hard we (and they) try.
Both these would be ‘easy wins’ for the school – but detrimental not just to individual girls, whom we have nurtured over the years, but also to the spirit of Wimbledon High. Many of our competitor schools do exclude Year 11 students from their own 6th forms. At WHS we have standards that Year 11 students must reach, but these are not prohibitive and it is rare for our girls not to reach them. The advice we give our students when it comes to AS and A level selection is thorough and individual, but we do not prohibit choice. Sometimes this may mean that a student studies something she really loves, even though she finds it an extremely hard option and will not achieve a top grade in it.
All WHS girls are intelligent enough to do extremely well at all subjects at GCSE level. When it comes to A levels, however, natural skills and inclinations become more important. A special aptitude in art, design or music is easy to spot, but equally, some girls find writing analytical and evaluative essays comes more easily than mathematical ability; while others shine when undertaking scientific investigation or may demonstrate a natural flair for languages. There is no doubt that, at A level, these aptitudes may make a difference to the final grade outcome. Does this mean that we should prevent an enthusiastic scientist from taking physics because her natural aptitude is more essay-writing than mathematical? To answer ‘yes’ would doubtless see us move up the league tables, but it goes to the heart of the question of what equals an excellent education. We pride ourselves on fostering intellectual passions and independent minds. Restricting our students in their subject choices demonstrates the exact opposite, and suggests that ‘the exam game’ is all that matters in life.
So, as ever, my message to 11+ parents will be that A level results are a necessary but insufficient measure of an excellent education. We are about so much more than that, as the students who make up our Class of 2013, with their many interests and individual successes, have shown.
Posted by Heather Hanbury