How much difference does a school make?

“If I want my child to get into Oxbridge, where do I start?”

London parents are bombarded with messages about the importance of choosing the right school. If you want your child to get into Oxbridge or senior school X, “you have to go to prep school Y or nursery Z”. One of the most common questions I receive from clients is “I want my child to get into Oxbridge (or Harvard), where do I start?”. But how much difference can and does a school make? And what can parents do if their child did not get into the school of their choice?

The answer to this happens to be slightly confusing at first. The type of children who would most benefit from an outstanding school can often be the least likely to attend them, while children whose parents are researching the best schools and studying may just be the ones who would be doing well in a wide range of schools. Excellent schools matter to those children whose parents provide little or no intellectual support at home and those who are not naturally self-starters. Among state schools, you can derive some of this information from so-called progress scores. They track what levels of achievement children reach given their starting point, for example from Year 2 to Year 6, or from the end of Year 6 (as measured by SATS) till their GCSE exams. Prep schools tend to track their value add via standardised reasoning scores (generally measured by CAT tests), and an excellent school would like to see the children’s standardised scores rise over time, implying that they make more progress than peers who attend other schools.

If you choose a school merely based on league tables or attainment scores, the problem is that “the best” schools hand pick their pupils via competitive entry exams (along with managing out pupils who struggle to keep up academically), so they can come out on top without adding any value. In fact, you can study the value added scores of private secondary schools Sixth Forms, measuring progress from GCSE exams to A-Level results, and most of them show zero or negative value add. The reason is that the top schools are entirely filled with pupils who scored straight A’s in their GCSE’s, so it is very hard for them to get even better in the more difficult A-Level exams, while some will fail to achieve their target grades. One top London school requires outside applicants to achieve at least 8 A*’s in their GCSE exams (internal candidates “only” need to achieve 6 A*’s), and there have been reports of grammar schools demanding as much as 10 A*’s from external candidates to join their Sixth Form. These school will come out on top in A-Level league tables, but their value add might well be zero or negative in such instances.

Research suggests that pupils who are naturally very able, hard working and curious, along with those who receive plenty of enrichment outside of school, tend to do very well in a broad range of schools, as long as they are not terrible. Therefore, if you work with your child outside of school and think they are reasonably bright, you should not worry too much if they get into your dream school, as they are likely to do well in life regardless. Of course, there will be logistical and pastoral considerations which affect your choice, which I will not go into in this post. If, however, you work so much that you cannot provide support at home and feel your child requires more support and attention to thrive, the school you choose will make a bigger difference.

My advice, regardless of school choice, is to see education as a long big project that requires a joint effort. Do not look for the perfect school that turns your child into a genius without input on your part. It is questionable if these schools exist. Instead, accept your own responsibility for your child’s education, do what you can do to ensure they remain curious, balanced, hard working, well informed and inspired, and worry less about getting into school X. It is too risky to assume the school  will take care of everything, because most schools these days have become very progressive, which means our children are having a blast at school, but they may not be learning as much at school as they used to, at least in strictly academic terms.

I know this may come as a surprise to you, since you will often be told exam pressure and stress have gone up, but the truth is that academic rigour and expectations declined from about 1970 onward, and we are only now seeing a small reverse trend. In addition, since there has been an increasing emphasis on soft skills, play and project work in recent decades, less old fashioned learning tends to take place during school hours. Many people see this as a good thing, and the pros and cons of this approach would be a topic for another post, but as a consequence, children need to work harder outside of school these days to obtain the same standard of work.

In conclusion, while some exceptional schools do add value, a large part of attainment can be attributed to the natural ability of the child and the enrichment and support they receive outside of school. Make sure you play a part in your child’s education, and never rely on a “top school”, unless you know it inside out and are very confident that it is an environment where children make exceptional progress without parental input.


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