A good school is one that delivers a lot more than exam results.
An uncontroversial statement. So why is it that the first answer a parent gives to the question “what makes a good school?” is invariably “exam results”? To be fair, they may also mention good teaching, good facilities, a good head teacher and good pastoral care, eventually.
Whatever the definition, the assessment can change quickly. A good school becomes a bad one the moment it fails their child.
Opinions also vary according to when you ask the question.
For instance, if you talk to parents of Reception age children, the conversation might focus on pastoral care, the broad curriculum and “wow moments”. By Year 4 the shift may be towards sporting participation and excellence. By Year 5 and 6, the focus narrows to academic results. There’s a similar pattern in secondary years; a widening of contributing factors through Year 7 to 9, then a narrowing to academic through the GCSE and A Level Years.
Does it matter that views vary according to who we ask, and when we ask them? I think so. We throw the “good school” label around a bit too casually, and we apply it lazily. As a result, we get stuck with the lowest common denominator of objective measures, the exam league tables.
I think we can do better. I think there are 6 broad considerations for what makes a good school. They are; the type of school, results and achievements, breadth of education, teaching, facilities and look and feel. I explain these below.
6 attributes of a good school
Firstly, being a good school has something to do with the type of school; be that single or mixed sex, a faith school or not, independent or state, day or boarding, and so on. These structural categorisations may be the most important (and only) consideration for some people. For example, there are those who will only consider a school if it is girls only, or has a Catholic ethos etc.
Secondly, it has something to do with results and achievements, be those exam results, future schools or universities or progress. But also sporting success, artistic success, contribution to community.
Thirdly, it has something to do with the breadth of education, or what is taught. For some, that may mean a focussed or exam-oriented curriculum. For others it may be a specialised curriculum, with an emphasis on performing arts, music or sport. In most cases it will mean a broad curriculum, with many subjects on offer, extra-curricular activities, as well as educational trips, a speaker programme, outdoor learning, community engagement etc.
Fourthly, being a good school has something to do with teaching, or how the curriculum is taught. This may include teaching techniques, teaching ratios, performance management, setting and streaming, homework and pastoral care. It includes provision for pupils with special needs as well as those with a gift or talent for something.
Fifthly, it has something to do with facilities, or having the physical capabilities to deliver the curriculum and teaching. For example, it’s hard to deliver a practical science lesson without a lab. Those facilities include sports, arts, academic, specialist sixth form, careers, as well as boarding, dining and wrap around care.
Finally, it also has something to do with atmosphere, the intangible that I refer to as “look and feel” elsewhere on this website. It’s a result of several things mainly people; the head teacher, the teachers, pupils, other parents as well as the general layout and aesthetic of the buildings and grounds.
6 attributes, or is it really 50?
Can you have a good school without, for example, good facilities?
Within each of those 6 categories above, some schools will perform better than others. There may be schools with average facilities, say, but good teaching. There may be schools with good teaching but average results. Both can be considered good, if good is simply a measure of being above average, or the norm. The point is, that no school excels at everything, they all have relative strengths.
To make things more granular, 5 of those 6 categories subdivide into 50 further measures that you can use to determine a good school. And weight them to your own preference. For each one that a school delivers more than the average, the better it is likely to be. And that is the basis of the Schoolsmith Score, more of which you can read about here.
I suppose, if a school excels against all 50 measures then it could be considered “great”, but none does. The great school is an ideal, a target to aim for.
Marketing brochures often open with “Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions that any parent has to make”. True. And what school does a parent choose? A good school. And what makes a good school? One that delivers results and achievements, breadth of education, teaching, facilities and look and feel better than an average school.