Choosing the right school for their children is a major concern for parents around the word. School rankings are one criteria, but do they reflect reality? And what can be done to turn around a failing school?
In many parts of the world, school rankings are based on national exam results. But many people criticize this system which see private schools topping the leaderboards. We went to Portugal to see how fair this approach really is.
Carla Sousa chose for her daughter Catarina the same school that she attended: Basic and Secondary School of Cerco, a public school in a difficult neighborhood of Porto. Never mind that she no longer lives there, and that this school is at the bottom of Portugal’s ranking.
“The school ranking doesn’t worry me at all,” Carla says. “To me it’s important that my daughters feel good, that they succeed at school and that they do their homework.”
Catarina studies Technological Sciences in the 10th grade, and benefits from a scholarship that allows her to also study music. Despite what the ranking says, she’s very happy there. She says the problem is not the education, but pupils’ lack of motivation: “Lots of pupils don’t study, don’t make an effort, but some have good grades and can go to university to study medicine, engineering, law.”
The school’s director, Manuel António Oliveira, says this lack of motivation has a lot to do with poverty and unemployment among families who don’t value education. To him, Portugal’s school rankings, which are mainly based on national exam results and are widely published in the media, just don’t make sense.
“We can’t ignore the rankings, and our school is defined by the state as needing priority attention, but we can’t compare what is not comparable,” he says. “For example, when we talk about colleges or private schools, we’re clearly talking about radically different things, because they select their teachers and their students, and the educational project is tailored for them.”
At the top of the country’s school rankings is Colégio Nossa Senhora do Rosário, a private school in one of Porto’s poshest neighborhoods. But even its director, Maria Teresa Nogueira, says it’s not relevant to use purely academic criteria for these rankings, “because students are much more than that.”
“To compare academic criteria between public and private schools can be unfair. Let’s face it, private schools like ours benefit from favorable conditions for success,” she says.
Her school offers tailored education where pupils can pursue extracurricular activities and work on a volunteer project. Nogueira even says she’s educating tomorrow’s leaders. The school costs around 500 euros a month, but parents see it as a good investment and pupils feel privileged to attend it. One of them, Carolina Magalhães Silva, says: “It helps me become a better person and all of this will open doors for me in the future – doors that wouldn’t be open if I was in another school.”
Failing yesterday, thriving today
Is it possible to transform a failing school into a competitive one? If so, what steps need to be taken to boost academic achievement? We went to Germany to see an example of how school performance can be turned on its head.