What does TOP really mean when it comes to Schools or Universities?

Assessing the respective merits of schools and universities is an annual nightmare for countless students and their parents.

Assessing the respective merits of schools and universities is an annual nightmare for countless students and their parents. Are the academic results, achieved by any educational institution, a totally valid means to judge one over another? Or should other factors be taken into account? And if you think so, how can you find out what they are?

“The problem,” one headmaster of a prominent UK school candidly told me as I was questioning his school’s position in a league table, “ is that I can manipulate the data so easily.” His was actually a co-educational school of mixed ability intake because he believed that youngsters had to be given a chance to mature, academically, socially and physically. “ That is what we are in business for, “ he told me. “But parents, especially many international ones, just want to send their children to schools that can prove they are top of the league. So the game I have to play is to avoid putting the slower children, who are all brilliant in their own way, into the statistics.”

His is not the only school to play this game. In the UK, candidates who might not do as well as the school wants are listed in public exams as “private” candidates. They sit the exams at the school they attend, but their results are not measured as part of the school cohort; they are just given to the child and parents.

When the British Sunday Times listed the country’s top schools, several of those making it into the “Top 200 Academic Achievers” nonetheless continued to market themselves to prospective international parents as being “non-selective” when it comes to choosing their intake. Everyone on the inside of the education network knows that it is not possible to reach that level of academic achievement as a school without vigorously weeding out the doubtful achievers from the formal exam statistics.   An increasing number of UK schools are so fed-up with playing this game that they are now refusing to give their statistics to the league-table compilers at all, resting on their long-standing reputation for sending their students to the UK’s best universities. This renders these league tables pretty meaningless. But parents who don’t know this will still be duped.

So what should parents and pupils look for when assessing the respective merits of schools and universities? And how should they find out?

Insiders who know what to look for and who have been closely involved for some time in the management of schools and universities know the inner strengths of each institution and are the best guides.  Nonetheless, there are some principles to follow when making selections.

1. If academic league tables are still important to you, ask to assess the data over a longer period than one or two years. Five years is a good measure and ten years allows you to see a proper trend. If the data is based on anything less than 40 pupils taking the final exams, ignore the results completely as one or two pupils doing well or badly distort the results.

2.Determine the pastoral care arrangements. How large are the tutor groups? Who is available for a pupil to turn to if he or she gets into difficulty? What do independent authorities, like authorised inspectors, say about pastoral care arrangements? If pastoral care groups are larger than 10, the warm words in the marketing material should be ignored.

3.Does the school have a wide range of clubs, societies, interesting trips and opportunities for students to pursue things they are really interested in? If these are barely listed on websites or in prospectuses, as if “in passing”, let that institution go by; they don’t really mean to give the student a fully holistic education.

4.How important is the student voice? What are the career counselling or university guidance opportunities? Schools should have a sustained programme and should take pride in where graduates move on to. If there are no serious programmes in place, and no arrangements to listen to the students, forget it.

5.How accessible is the top person? Is he or she willing to engage in communication? Send an email requesting a brief Skype conversation about the educational ethos of the place and look at the response. If there are layers of bureaucracy between you and the occupant of the top job, it will speak volumes. The top person should be passionate about the ethos and always want to talk about it; if it is a burden to do so, it will not be embodied in the institution, so move on to somewhere where it is.

While most of this advice applies to schools, it has its relevance in the selection of the right university too. There are two questions every student embarking on a university career should ask:

1.What do I really want to know about?
2.What do I love to study?

An undergraduate degree at a top university is an opportunity to develop not just an academic ability, but a passion for something which will serve throughout the rest of one’s working life. If someone never has to “go to work”, because what they are doing coincides with their purpose in life, then they will be both happy and successful. Some interesting work is taking place at Harvard and Stanford universities on ‘Purpose’ in education. The research is likely to verify what school masters throughout the ages have always known: the best educational institution is the one where the best in every pupil is brought forth and allowed to flourish. After all, that is what the word ‘education’ means.


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