Interpreting league tables and the different exams now offered in schools – Alex Peterken, Headmaster of Cheltenham College

12 May 2014

It would be unusual if parents did not take a keen interest in how successful a prospective school was and how much their son or daughter might be expected to achieve in that specific learning environment, but it’s not always easy to get a clear picture of success by looking at measurable information such as league tables alone. This can be a particular problem in boarding schools, where the range and breadth of the opportunities provided for pupils means ‘success’ is achieved in a myriad of different contexts which are difficult to quantify. Boarding schools rightly have a broad definition of what constitutes success that goes beyond just performance in public examinations. This is not to say that exam results do not matter, in fact they are at the heart of what we work towards for the large part of every day, but parents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in understanding the raw data provided by league tables, understanding context, and also looking more widely at other signs of success. So what should parents look out for?


Prep Schools Baccalaureate

Firstly, some parents may be aware of the debate currently running about Common Entrance and just how ‘fit for purpose’ it is. Senior School Heads have expressed concern in some quarters about the focus on the regurgitation of facts rather than the development of academic skills per se – such as using evidence to marshall an argument or thinking on your feet in an exam room – which are important aspects later on when it comes to GCSE and A Level. One approach from a small number of prep schools has been to develop a Prep Schools Baccalaureate that focuses on a far broader range of assessment areas (including teamwork, leadership and extra-curricular activities) which is marked internally by the prep school on a rolling basis rather than a single set of final exams.

Only a handful of schools have taken this step so far, with the majority of prep schools waiting to see the way Common Entrance develops over the coming years now that an updated set of exams has been agreed.


Turning towards IGCSEs

At GCSE, the first formal stage in the public examination process, independent schools are increasingly turning away from GCSE to alternatives such as the International GCSE (IGCSE) because they are keen to ensure that their pupils are well prepared to pursue subjects at sixth form level and at university. Successive revisions of some GCSE syllabi have seen them increasingly emptied of knowledge and understanding, with a superficial appreciation of concepts replacing the more detailed study of facts and underlying principles. The attractiveness of the IGCSE is that it holds fast to the idea that studying a subject demands depth as well as breadth. We are promised that changes to GCSEs and a new National Curriculum will lead to our mainstream qualifications being toughened again, but the question to ask is how well do the GCSE courses in any given school prepare the pupils for the next step up to A Level?

At Cheltenham College, we offer the IGCSE in Mathematics, English Literature, Science, History and Geography. We have found that pupils benefit from the richer and more substantial content. They also enjoy learning to apply principles in unfamiliar circumstances which develops their analytical and critical thinking skills. As a consequence, when they enter the sixth form and go on to university, where they are required to understand and engage more deeply with their chosen subjects, they are in a much stronger position.


Cambridge Pre-U

In the sixth form, there are now several different examination options. The most academically challenging are the Cambridge Pre-U specifications that are modelled on the old-fashioned A level exams. They are examined only at the end of the two-year course, feature traditional content, and certainly prepare students well for the first year of undergraduate study. For parents, two things are worth considering here. Firstly, is your child so clearly highly able that they will thrive under this extra pressure, especially bearing in mind that they will not be able to resit any papers? Secondly, there is no evidence that sitting Pre-U exams (which the vast majority of schools do not offer) is in any way an advantage when it comes to university admissions.


AQA Baccalaureate

The AQA Bacc is simply a suite of different aspects of a sixth form curriculum which all come together under one banner, the vast majority of which are the three A Levels that most schools offer anyway. Added to this are a fourth AS subject, an extended project, work-related learning, community participation and other enrichment activities. This is all laudable, but good sixth forms, especially in high quality boarding schools, should already be doing this under their own banner. Some may take the view that the AQA Bacc just complicates and restricts things by seeking an external accreditation that is not currently widely understood by universities and employers.


International Baccalaureate

Then there is the International Baccalaureate (IB). This adds extra subjects to study (which can be a problem for those who have been looking forward to giving up Maths and French for example!) and again, despite much press coverage, there is little evidence to suggest the IB is an advantage when it comes to university entrance. Where the IB is fantastic, however, is in encouraging independent learning through the research project. There is, of course, nothing to stop good schools introducing such a project into their sixth forms alongside conventional A Levels. For example, at Cheltenham we run an internal research essay for all lower sixth students on a topic related to their university application while the most able take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). This has proved a very effective combination alongside conventional A Levels, especially as far as university entrance is concerned. It is also excellent preparation for the step up to undergraduate courses.


A Levels

For parents, it’s important to have an understanding of the public exam system that the particular school they are looking at has adopted and why. The IB and Pre-U may offer some specific features, but these may not be necessary or appropriate for the vast majority of students. I for one am an advocate of the A Level system, by far the most commonly sat exams, undeniably understood by universities, and now featuring an A* grade (which is awarded to around 18% of independent school exam entries as opposed to 6% nationally), enabling the very able student to be stretched and to shine.

The complications of these different exam systems makes comparison across league tables difficult and just looking at league tables alone will mean you are in danger of missing the point about many of the things which should make education the greatest time of young people’s lives. To succeed in adult life involves much more than simply being proficient in the classroom.

A good school sets about educating the whole person, and any measure of success should take account of the opportunities pupils have to grow as individuals. Excellent teaching and learning is crucial, but schools should also be places where pupils develop knowledge and understanding, where they are given the opportunity and encouragement to find and use their latent talents, where their self-esteem is built up and their confidence grows, and where they learn to be generous-hearted and develop an enquiring mind.

In recent years I have seen a team of 24 prefects, unprompted, plan and execute a charity triathlon which raised in excess of £7,500 by running, swimming and cycling a non-stop relay for 24 hours (including the hire of a charity cat suit for me to run the first lap!). I’ve seen a Year 10 girl have a dialogue with a Jewish Rabbi in the synagogue about his ancestors and the Holocaust and heard a Year 12 pupil deliver a paper on legalising euthanasia in front of an audience of parents and a Professor of Ethics. Every single sixth former at Cheltenham takes a nationally accredited course in leadership and life skills. Can league tables measure these sorts of successes? I don’t believe so.


Success is multifaceted

In boarding schools, learning in this broad sense does not begin and end with formal lessons. Lunchtimes, evenings and weekends are filled with activities – ranging from academic societies, hobbies and wider interest clubs, to sports and leisure activities – all of which contribute to an immensely stimulating and varied education. It is this that really enables pupils to grow into accomplished, self-confident and well-rounded individuals. I’m not sure the Cheltonian who finished presenting to a conference at Manchester University about the College’s biodiesel ‘eco scheme’ (made from discarded cooking oil) really thought he could do it until it was all over!

Most boarding schools also have well developed House and tutorial structures which means that the support to foster success is always close to hand. At Cheltenham, academic ‘clinics’ are open outside classroom hours and tutors spend time with their tutees offering support and advice about any and every issue.

Housemasters and Housemistresses know the pupils in their houses very well indeed and can provide the security and stability that they need as they find their way through the maze of adolescence. And of course, co-education allows boys and girls to grow up together and develop a social ease and confidence that is invaluable later in life.

Success, then, is multifaceted and does not lend itself readily to any form of simple measurement. League tables, in particular, are unreliable as schools pursue other forms of examination, and they make no attempt to measure opportunity, character, self-confidence or any of the other attributes that we regard as equally important at Cheltenham College. n


Dr Alex Peterken became Headmaster of Cheltenham College in September 2010, having joined as Deputy Head in 2008. Educated at Eton College, he read theology at the University of Durham, and was also a choral scholar at Durham Cathedral. He holds an MA in educational management and a doctorate in education, specialising in school leadership. His first teaching post was at Charterhouse, where he spent 11 successful years. He held several senior posts, including Head of Theology and Head of Higher Education and Careers Guidance. His final six years at Charterhouse were spent as Housemaster of Saunderites.


Article reproduced from the Service Parents’ Guide to Boarding Schools by kind permission of Bulldog Publishing Limited


Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire