Lee Elliot Major on the difference a school really makes to academic grades

“Stop looking around at everyone!” I am back at school and being scolded again. But not by a teacher. It is my better-half who is telling me off, as I crank my neck around to see who else is present in the packed school hall. We are sitting among rows of similarly anxious parents and fidgety children waiting for the head-teacher to deliver her ‘pitch’. Then, ten minutes later, we are swept off by a Year 9 pupil on a dizzying tour of colourful corridors, computer labs, and crowded classrooms.

Like hundreds of thousands of parents up and down the country, the start of this academic season signals the search for the right secondary school for one of our children.

In North London, this is a particularly tortuous time. Guilt-ridden liberal-minded middle-class types are at pains to justify their decision to abandon the state system for private schools elsewhere. And those who have committed to the local Comp have been transformed into evangelical zealots. There is no end in sight for England’s ancient education divide.

But what is shocking to me is that otherwise highly intelligent, sensible, well-balanced parents appear to be making school decisions based on hearsay, second-hand rumours, and, probably most damaging of all, some basic education myths and misunderstandings.

Probably the single biggest myth is that a child’s academic grades are mostly determined by the school they attend. If school A has 100% of children with 5 GCSEs including English and maths, and school B has only 50% meeting this benchmark, then school A must be twice as good as school B, right?

Well, actually no. One of the few unassailable findings of education research over the last five decades is the ’80-20 rule’: roughly 80% of the variation in children’s school results is due to individual and family characteristics outside the school gates, with the remaining 20% due to what actually happens during school.

You can do the maths in terms of final GCSE grades, and it produces a surprising result. The impact of an average pupil going to the very best performing school in the country rather than the worst performing school would be an improvement in his or her results by one GCSE grade, say from a C and to a B for each GCSE taken.

There are important rejoinders to this finding. Some schools can and do have a bigger impact than others – as shown by markedly different academic results despite very similar intakes of children. Parents would do well to look at the wealth of Government data now available for individual schools, showing progress for different groups of pupils. Even a cursory look will prompt some challenging questions for teachers. And inspection reports can provide useful context alongside these figures.

It is also true that in an increasingly competitive education race, one extra grade at GCSE can make the critical difference. It can determine, for example, whether you get into a selective sixth form.

But this doesn’t detract from the overwhelming message that if you are a child from a secure and supportive background, then you will do well academically at most schools. That puts the whole question of school choice into a completely different perspective.

In fact probably the best question parents can ask is how a school is addressing the variation in teaching quality across a school. There is no public data available on this. But education research tells us that the biggest differences in results is within schools not between them. We also know that teacher quality is the key driver – not class size, not school type, not uniform, certainly not school buildings.

This is one of the major messages of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit, a guide to the most cost-effective approaches for improving attainment in schools. Originally commissioned by the Sutton Trust, the toolkit is now being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation – and should be compulsory reading for every parent.

There are of course many things apart from academic results to consider when thinking about a school. But if you simply want to know what the school’s average GCSE grades will be in 5 years time, then just look around you at who else is present during the school’s open day. The answer is staring you in the face.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07791 044564.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news