School league tables are not new, but the number is increasing. There are also the general A-level result tables, primary league tables and at the extreme performance end of the scale, the 'Good Schools Guide Cambridge Qualifying Standard Table'.
However, at the same time, research released today has poured cold water on the use of league tables to choose school. The Centre for Education Policy and Research at AQA has found that league tables are almost useless at predicting the likely future performance of a 10-year old applicant in exams when 16 or 18. Some interesting analysis by Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network of today's GCSE results also shows evidence of 'reversion to mean' - with the average performance of the 'best' schools dropping while the performance of the weakest is improving.
There are also flaws in the tables - as seen by the curious case of Pate's Grammar School which came bottom of the GCSE tables but 26th best in the country in the ABacc due to an experimental choice of one GCSE. There are also a host of schools using 'GCSE equivalents' - many which will be 'banned' next year!
As marketers, we need to consider what parents and other audiences make of league tables. The Family Lives/Pearson report 'A New Conversation with Parents' published in 2011 put 'test and exam results' as the 6th most important criterion for parents, after teaching quality, reputation at the school gate, distance, impression of students in the community and bullying and behaviour policies -quite a list! Anecdotally, it's easy to find parents who claim to refuse to compromise on 'the best' school for their children, but these will almost always actually consider a number of schools before choosing - at the very least because almost all of the 'best' schools are heavily oversubscribed or have entrance exams!
So, what should marketers do? If the results are great, use them immediately of course! Publish them online, use social media to spread the word, announce the results in assemblies - and make sure you use the results over the next year where- and whenever you can.
If results look poor, there is an equally pressing need to quickly translate and communicate the full picture of the results to your stakeholders. Parents want reassurance that academic performance is either consistently good or improving - and if there are areas of weakness, there are actions being taken to improve this. If there are discrepancies - perhaps your GCSE option choices don't fit the Ebacc or students are doing vocational equivalents, explain the reasons for your choice. Make sure that all teaching staff are briefed and can refer any parental concerns to senior leaders at Open Days or other events.
It is equally important however not to focus too much on league tables in marketing and to assume that a relatively high showing in one league table means security of intake. I worked in a town where one school fell into this trap - and when the other comprehensive in the area appointed a dynamic and progressive headteacher, it very quickly saw a major fall in applications (and ended up in Special Measures...). Remember too that only 2 Free Schools have had any GCSE results - and a lot more are set to open soon!
One particular important reminder is that while teachers and schools focus on headline league table results, they can be too broad-brush for parents. They want to see that students like their children are able to succeed - which is why a full break down of results and detailed case studies (written or video) plus the opportunity to talk to current students are so important.
Schools also need to have a clear vision, demonstrate the quality of their leaders, their teachers and their teaching and learning, and tell the great stories that happen every day. Schools that do this successfully will probably move up the league tables as well, of course, as they attract great teachers and more applications!
As always, please add your comments!
PS - one issue I'm very interested in is how the Ebacc is being viewed - not by schools, but by parents and students. Do they know about the Ebacc - do they view it as important? Please comment on this as well below!