Opinion: The Limitations of League Tables

By Jimmy Beale, Co-founder & Director of APT

In a recent blog from Keystone Tutors, ‘How to Assess a School’s Academic Performance’, Felix Hamilton provided useful information for parents questioning which academic performance league-tables are the most trustworthy. He also made the point that schools cannot be judged on academic performance alone, a point that I would support wholeheartedly.



Choosing a school for your child based upon league-table data in isolation would be foolish. I have known ‘brilliant’ children who, when placed in the most academically selective schools, have found the atmosphere and the weight of expectation to be too much – their academic performance has plummeted and they have underachieved in examinations. Perhaps they have not settled socially, or have not been stimulated outside of the classroom? I have also known children at less selective schools who have far exceeded their projected examination grades – only recently a young man, whose family I advised and supported, put his examination success down to his love for bees. He didn’t know that his school had a bee-keeping club when he joined the school, but it was the bee-keeping club that came to be his driver. He loved lessons, he made great friends, he had purpose, he was busy and he was happy – he says it was because of his love for bees. How on earth do you measure that in a league-table? His school was outstanding for him. But if he hadn’t found the bee-keeping club…?

Choosing a school for your child based upon league-table data in isolation would be foolish. I have known ‘brilliant’ children who, when placed in the most academically selective schools, have found the atmosphere and the weight of expectation to be too much

Examination performance league-tables give little more than a snapshot of the degree of academic selectivity of schools. Top ranked schools in all the trusted league-tables share a key trait – they select applicants based upon rigorous scrutiny of past and current academic performance and, in the best cases, on academic potential. They set highly academic tests for entry and accept the cream of the crop at 11+, 13+ or 16+.


Successful applicants perform as very bright children should. They are well taught, often by equally bright, highly qualified teachers and they are rewarded by superb, league-table topping examination results. And this tells us that league-table topping schools are outstanding?


The measure of a good education should go far beyond percentages of top grades achieved by an examination cohort. An outstanding education is, as Felix intimates, concerned with far more than ‘top grades’. Children will succeed in schools where they are secure, challenged and where they grow in confidence – a multitude of factors combine to create the right environment for success, but those factors will be different for each child. No one school is a perfect fit for every pupil, even if the pupil meets the academic requirements for entry. And who is to tell us that top grades and a place at a Russell Group university is an appropriate marker of success?


I suggest parents use examination performance league-tables as one of many tools to look at the appropriateness of a school for your child. For a child to make progress, a whole range of influencing factors will come together. Pupils make progress at different times and at different rates and a narrow focus on final exam results may well hide the huge steps taken along the way. When quizzing the Head of a prospective school after your school tour, ask him, or her, about value-added data. Those schools who are proud of, and can evidence, the success they have made with individual children will wax lyrical – others will not be comfortable with the concept. Some of the top-ranking league-table performers will cry foul and rubbish the concept. Perhaps that is because they know they have added little or no value against nationally recognised benchmarked data? Ask the question, nonetheless.


The sooner that a value-added performance league-table is created, accepted and published, the better. Until then, do your research properly. Make sure a school is right for your child by getting under the skin of the institution and find out why will your son or daughter be happy there; beyond that, nothing else really matters.


This article first appeared on The English Education's blog in September 2021 (www.theenglisheducation.co.uk)