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What is a good school?

Everyone loves a ranking list. The top 10 restaurants in town. The top 50 hotels in the world. The top 100 cleanest cities in India. Coimbatore (where I live now) has apparently gone down in the list of cleanest cities in India, much to the chagrin of its residents. However, people fail to ask fundamental questions about rankings – What are the criteria used? How relevant are they? Was the research done properly without bias? What is the motive of the ranking agency?
This is especially relevant when it comes to school education as assessing quality at a school level is quite difficult. Often, because we do not have access to the data that matters, we substitute easily assessed proxies for quality of education – a great looking reception desk, marble on the floor and so on. Very often parents realize too late that their child lags behind in fundamental areas before taking action, by which time precious time has passed.

Assessing school quality
Parents care most about two things when selecting a school – their child’s educational achievement and their overall wellbeing while at school. To simplify a complicated area, here are four broad factors to consider while assessing schools.

1. The degree of achievement of the students and to what extent the school plays a role in that. Every student must be able to realize his / her potential and should not be held back because of shortcomings in the programmes offered. Most schools have some students who excel, but the key point is to check the average and median scores achieved at an overall level (what is the average board exam scores across all the students?). University admission offers at top colleges are also indicators of success, especially for ones that focus on all round development. The peer group matters too, as motivated and positive students tend to create an atmosphere for achievement.

2. The engagement and wellbeing of the students at school. How happy, excited and challenged are they at school? Safety and pastoral care are key components that are a requirement for success. The top schools challenge students to achieve their best, work hard and develop an excellent work ethic, without pressurizing them.

3. The choice, extent and quality of programmes offered outside the classrooms, especially towards skill development. Schools should serve as a place where students discover what they are good at and then build on those skills overtime. The long-term success of the new generation of students is based on building a robust skill set that can be used in many walks of life. Schools must serve as the starting point for identifying and nurturing those interests.

4. Location and logistics of reaching the school: The closer to home the school is, the better it is for the student, especially when they are young. Another increasingly important aspect is the environment of the school (think about schools in Delhi, with high air pollution levels). A school in the middle of a high traffic area will have more air pollution as opposed to one which is in a quieter neighbourhood. Given students spend 7 to 8 hours at school for over 200 days in a year, this is an aspect that is worth thinking about.

Parents now have a choice of schools offering different syllabi, methods and values. It is worth taking time to understand all the key factors while assessing the quality of a school and ultimately decide on the right one for our children.

Dr. Vikram Ramakrishnan