There is a bewildering range of information available about schools, from the percentage of GCSE A* to C to the school's Index of Multiple Deprivation and Free School Meals, as well as the Open Day visits. However, the complexity of the data masks the main truth that the story it tells is simple and not so hard to judge.
It boils down to this: will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?
League TablesFirst, the league table figures you see in the broadsheet newspapers are easy for schools to massage, and they rarely tell you anything you didn't know any way.
Everything from entering pupils into easy online IT course and vocational BTEC subjects, officially worth several grade C GCSEs each but with a much reduced challenge, through to picking out a couple of dozen lazy grade D boys and squeezing them until the pips squeak and they get a clutch of grade Cs. Coursework regulations, intended to ensure that only a pupil's own work is submitted, are routinely ignored, with substandard work repeatedly marked and returned until it is good enough. Schools will even switch exam boards to chase those examiners that 'grade high', often following the appointment of a new head teacher looking to quickly make their mark.
These dodgy practices are sometimes apparent in the figures as a series of sudden jumps in the A* to C rates, as each new trick comes online, when even brilliant changes should take some time to feed through as new pupils move up the school with a new system.
A Social MeasureThe league tables do, however, tell you much about the economic background of the families whose children make up a school's population. If you compare the league table with the ranking according to the government's Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), you find they measure substantially the same thing. A school high in one list will be low in the other. (For those interested, the rank correlation is around -0.75, at least in my county). The IMD accounts for around half of all the differences between schools in the tables, which makes it a more important measure than any other single factor.
So league table position, GCSE A* to Cs, and all that complex data tell you little more than you could find out from parking near the school and watching the children as they pile out at the end of the day. Posh or rough? And if you are applying to local schools, then you already know their social make-up.
Ignore the Flashy TalkIgnore the head teachers' Powerpoint presentations, where they tell you that the school is more than just a few numbers but here they are anyway, and go on a tour around the school. (However, a really poor presentation can tell you something about their attention to details.) Talk to the tour guide and talk to pupils you find in the corridor. Peer into any classroom with the door closed, and see what the children are doing when they think they're not being watched. Talk to the teachers, but not about the school, since they will be on their best behaviour and supporting their employer — ask them about themselves and their job. Teachers spend their days talking, so get them talking about their days and experiences and be interested in them. Are they at home and comfortable in their jobs, do they travel for to be here, and do their own children attend the same school?
CultureThe league table position tells you how the school did with the mix of children they had, but it tells you little about how your child will do. So the real question is: can you see your own child fitting in with the children you have seen there?
It is not the prefects who showed you round you should be watching, who really ought to be smart, but the surly ones who've found their way to the corner on the back row of the class. There will always be some, but if there is more that a few in each room the teachers' jobs become much harder and the easy children get less of the teachers' attention.
The task of choosing a secondary school has become very complex if all the school gate discussions are to be believed. But, in reality, the judgement to be be made can be made without reference to all that conflicting and compromised data $mdash; just try to picture your child in amongst those who you see in the classrooms and corridors.
Will your child raise the tone of the school or be raised by it?