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How to use the Schools Guide
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Some of the best teaching takes place where staff have to try harder to reach the students who struggle
Photograph: Getty Images

We have never had so much information about state secondary schools yet, when it comes time to choose a school, most parents rely almost exclusively on a couple of potentially misleading indicators: Ofsted ratings and exam league tables. These rankings fail to capture what a good school really looks like.

League tables are unhelpful because they tell us far more about pupils than about schools. Attainment at GCSE is mostly predictable from a pupil‘s previous performance at primary school and other characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and family circumstances. A school looking to bump up its place in the rankings might focus more on enrolment than on teaching – the opposite of what most parents would want.

The greatest flaw in school league tables is that they are based only on exam results. These results are important, but not the only factor that determines a good school. We also care whether children are happy and staff motivated, how well the intake of a school reflects its local community, where pupils go after graduating, and many other factors.

The reason for the focus on exam results is that, until recently, they were one of the few measures available. That is no longer the case. This is why this Schools Guide, produced by the Guardian Media Group and compiled by SchoolDash, my education data analytics firm, has created a guide that combines traditional indicators with the other considerations that matter to parents and their children.

This guide is different to exam league tables. It provides parents with useful information that assists with the deeply personal decision of choosing the right school for their child.

For now, this guide is a pilot covering all secondary state schools in England, including university technical colleges and studio schools. Post-16 schools and further education colleges are not included, nor are independent schools. This is because there is less available data, though we hope to include these schools in future iterations of the guide.

Schools in the guide are judged on 10 indicators. These cover academic performance (attainment and progress), non-academic attributes (attendance and post-school destinations), social factors (admissions and representation), performance of particular groups (specifically disadvantaged pupils and sixth-formers), financial stability and the quality of the local environment. You can read more about the indicators and the data we use here.

Importantly, this guide can be customised. Each of these 10 factors can be up-weighted, down-weighted or ignored. You will construct your own personal scores and rankings, not be handed ours or anyone else’s – just as it should be.

It is, of course, not the final word on school choice. There are many important factors for which data are not yet readily available – pupil wellbeing and extra-curricular activities, to name two.

Crucially, we would never suggest that anyone choose a school on the basis of data alone. As with other life choices, too much of what really matters is unquantifiable. Use this guide to help work out schools that would be a good match for your child, then visit the schools that interest you and ask lots of questions. This guide is just a jumping-off point to help you find a school where your child will thrive.

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