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What makes a school a great school?

By 09/02/2021 No Comments
by Dominic Mott, Head of Senior School, Hurst College

Well, many things – but, unsurprisingly for an industry dedicated to learning – academic achievement is frequently prized as the key factor. So how can this be measured? Results in public examinations are a reasonably good indicator of academic achievement, and although exam results do matter, clearly, they aren’t the sole metric of a great education.

How, then, might schools be compared against one another so that parents know which school achieves the highest grades? A league table that ranks each school by their GCSE and A-level results would seem to be a pretty sensible place to start. “So far, so good,” you might be thinking; or perhaps, “so what”? Please bear with me.

Value what you measure. Measure what you value.
What if academic ‘achievement’ isn’t actually what we want to be measuring at all? What if the real metric here is not the fixed notion of ‘achievement’, but instead the journey implied by ‘progress’? Isn’t that what learning is all about? Improving, growing, maturing, developing, and striving to do the very best that you are capable of, whatever that ‘best’ might be.

League tables have their place if you are the parent of a highly academic child, looking for them to be schooled amongst a selective cohort of similarly niche students, in an exams-focused environment, where the school has a vested interest in driving up its overall statistics – at any cost. For most parents this simply isn’t what they are signing up for.

For those parents who simply want their child “to do their best”, the only metric on which to judge schools is their ‘value added’ data. Put simply, it tells you how your child is likely to fare at one school compared to the grades they would achieve if they went to another school.

This data, which is generated by comparing GCSE and A-level results to standardised national baseline figures, is a far more accurate metric of the quality of teaching and learning in any given school. It cuts out ruthless academic selection, hot-housing, and questionable practices such as using different exam centre numbers to enter less-able pupils or those with special educational needs.It values the progress made by every single child, whatever the final outcome.

For the sceptics who (wrongly) suspect I may be attempting to distract from an unremarkable set of results at Hurst, you may wish to put our 2019 GCSE statistics (83% at grades 9 – 7) into The Times rankings of independent co-educational schools and you will see where we would have come. A gold star to anyone who emails me with the correct answer! We are even prouder of our ‘value added’ scores, which celebrate the outstanding achievements made by every single one of our pupils and puts us right at the top of the national rankings.

To return to the initial question, what makes a great school?
For sure, parents want their children to achieve the very best results of which they are capable at GCSE and A-level. However, they also want them to be healthy, happy, rounded, kind, confident, mature, independent young adults, ready to go out into the world to live successful lives and make a positive difference to those around them. That’s definitely not something you can measure by a league table!

The challenges of remote learning
What also makes a great school is one which can adapt swiftly, efficiently and effectively to unforeseen circumstances, such as switching to remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government’s decision to close all schools from 20th March 2020 was less of a surprise than the bold announcement that there would be no public examinations this summer for GCSE and A-level students. Nevertheless, school leaders were left with precious little time to plan for the lockdown.

As with other independent schools, our priority was clear from the outset: to continue with, as far as was reasonably possible, the full provision of an outstanding all-round education for every child.

With days to spare before lockdown, one of the first priorities was to ensure that all staff and pupils had the equipment to teach or learn from home. An audit of digital devices redistributed laptops to those who needed them, and support staff were encouraged to take their office desktop computer home to enable remote working. Teachers were equipped with deskcams, whilst pupils’ devices were upgraded and checked to ensure that all were ready for a transition to the online world.

We were fortunate to be ahead of the game in the transition to a cloud-based network. Already 12 months into an 18 month project, it became clear that the final six months would need to be condensed into just a few weeks. All of our teaching and learning resources are stored in a bespoke SharePoint site which allowed teachers and pupils to access PowerPoints, worksheets, exam papers, mark schemes, online video tutorials, tests and revision materials from any device, anywhere in the world. In addition, by centralising the delivery of lessons through Microsoft Teams, with easy access to applications such as OneNote, it was made as straightforward as possible to deliver live lessons whilst giving teachers freedom over how to teach.

One of the most interesting challenges was to redesign the school day to adapt to the new way of working. Slightly shorter lessons and longer gaps between helped to reduce screen time; synchronising Prep School and Senior School timetables allowed families with siblings in two different parts of the college to take lunch together; regular short tutorial slots allowed tutors time to offer one-on-one support to pupils; and some creative timetabling allowed for an earlier finish each day without losing any of the co-curricular provision. This last point proved critical: by continuing to offer a programme of assemblies, sports sessions, choir and orchestra practices, musical rehearsals and activities sessions the regular rhythms of school life continued – pupils remained fit, healthy and active.

Hurst College is a thriving independent school for children aged between 4 and 18 with an overarching aim to provide an excellent all round education with a strong academic core and ideally located between Brighton and Haywards Heath. www.hppc.co.uk