Education: Why gut feelings beat league tables: Schools must now publish their exam results, but do better grades change parents' minds? And how much choice do parents have anyway?

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The Independent Online
'WE WERE looking for a good, safe school and we particularly wanted a uniform because I didn't want to get into this pounds 80-trainers thing.'

'I mean, somebody said to me, I hated Blenheim, it was just like a grammar school. Well, that wouldn't put me off, necessarily.'

'I think it's rather like buying a house, you tend to feel, 'if this place is right for us'.'

'I think they do play cricket and that was another factor for us.'

PARENTS choose schools for many and complicated reasons, according to research just published by academics at King's College London. Professor Stephen Ball and two colleagues at the Centre for Educational Studies, who interviewed the parents quoted above, say exam results are not the primary reason why some schools are popular. 'There is a package of cultural indicators and class advantages embedded in these schools, including feeling or atmosphere, which is fundamental to choice-making,' states the paper.

Other studies agree. A research project based at Warwick University published findings earlier this year which indicated that ethos, discipline and symbols of academic standards, such as uniform and plaques on the wall, were more important than the results themselves. Researchers at Edinburgh University concluded in 1989 that the right atmosphere for a child is of more interest to parents than 'measurable criteria'. Recent studies at Newcastle University suggest that most parents allow children to pick their own schools and that they usually choose the one favoured by their classmates and friends.

The Government wants this to change. Over the next few months, parents will be bombarded with facts about standards that aim to help them to make up their minds. For the first time, exam league tables will be published along with truancy rates and the proportion of pupils staying on at 16.

Already, fee-paying schools have published their A-level results and have been ranked by newspapers. During the next few weeks, the exam results of state schools will emerge under the Government's edict that all must publish their results. By November, ministers will have GCSE and A-level results from every school in every local authority and will pay to have them published in local newspapers. Then, they say, parents will have the information to make decisions.

As Kenneth Clarke, the former Secretary of State for Education, said last year: 'I intend to take the mystery out of education by providing the real choice which flows from comparative tables setting out the performance of local schools.'

Will parents fulfil the Government's expectations and make more scientific choices in future? Some will study the new tables avidly. Those with children at the Judd School, Tonbridge (which had better A-level results than most fee-paying schools), may feel a moment of satisfaction when they notice that Gordonstoun (pounds 2,140 a term for day pupils, and the Prince of Wales's former school) came 172nd in one league table of schools scoring the highest number of A and B grades at A-level.

Experts, however, say that schools such as Gordonstoun have nothing to fear: the publication of league tables will have little effect on where parents send their children. Professor Ball points to a 'mismatch between crude government notions of choice-making' and the way parents actually choose schools. Gut feelings, not the points score at A-level, are what count. Only a small group of parents tours every possible school armed with a clipboard of questions and all the vital statistics.

Even those who believe that most parents place exam results high on their list of priorities doubt that they will be much influenced by the new league tables. Professor Desmond Nuttall, consultant director of the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics, argues that parents can already find out exam results if they wish; and his studies suggest they rate exam results as highly as order and discipline. 'The publicity this autumn may cause a few parents to look again but the change will be small,' he says.

His own research on parental choice in the former Inner London Education Authority showed that the publication of exam results had no influence whatsoever on parental choice. That may have been because the results were published in the spring, while most parents choose a school in the autumn, but the publication of results for the last few years in his home town of St Albans has had no noticeable effect. In his ILEA survey, parents chose tactically. Some did not put the most popular school first because they thought they would have a better chance of getting their offspring into a less popular school. Parents, he predicts, will go on juggling their chances.

League tables are designed, of course, to be used by politicians as well as parents: ministers believe that schools will be shamed into trying harder when they find themselves at the bottom of the fourth division. But the alarm felt by heads who fear the supply of pupils will run out when the tables are published is misplaced. Parents may take exam results into account, as they have done in the past; but they will also continue to trust their intuition and to keep an eye open for cricket and the cost of training shoes.