What Makes a Top School?

We all know them: Those minority of schools which for some reason (or combination of reasons) stand out in the collective imagination as ‘top schools’. The ones every other school wants to emulate in some way or another. The ones where the mere mention of having gone there unlocks so many more opportunities.

But what makes a ‘top school’?

  • Is it money? Many top schools are private institutions and charge parents huge amounts of money. The revenue generated can be spent on purchasing wonderful equipment, paying top teachers and building snazzy facilities. And this, of course, attracts more wealthy families and the cycle perpetuates itself.
  • How about academic achievement? Surely the top schools also always have the best results?
  • Perhaps it is the age of the school? Top schools almost always have long histories and associated feelings of gravitas and tradition.
  • Maybe it is the use of technology and other twenty-first century education techniques? (Or maybe it’s the exact opposite: the refusal to get involved in any of this new-fangled stuff?)
  • Is it arrogance? The pure fact that everyone at these schools just assumes that they’re better – and this becomes a self-fulfilling assumption.
  • Or perhaps it is the sporting and cultural achievements of top schools’ students?
  • Or maybe it’s size? Top schools always seem so big. Yet they manage to keep the number of students small.


It might be any of these factors or all of them. But to my way of thinking, a truly excellent school isn’t based on any of these. For me, a top school is one that has a happy, dynamic, motivated and professionally dedicated team of teachers. And this, in turn, leads to happy, confident and motivated students.

So if you are a parent and you want to send your kid to a top school, spend a day there. Look beyond the ivy-covered buildings, ignore the prospectus and the pictures of famous alumni. Visit the staff room and peer into the classrooms.

If there’s lot of noise and smiling going on, you’re in the right place.



  1. I agree totally with this.
    When parents are looking for a good school tell them to spend some time in the school,unannounced if possible.When I used to visit schools I would do this to really get a feel for the place.Try to observe some lessons from afar and, if you are witnessing,happy involved teachers and students,then you are seeing a good school.
    Also see how the students treat you as you move around the place.I once visited a so-called top school and,because I was early for my appointment,I went on a bit of a walk-about.I observed an art class in progress which seemed chaotic but constructive.Suddenly the bell rang and there was pandemonium as the students rushed for the door.They poured out into the grounds and nearly knocked me flying!My image of that school changed forever!
    Finally,when I was Head of Mananga College in Swaziland,I invited the British High Commisioner to be our Guest Speaker for a particular Prize-Giving.Unbeknown to anyone he arrived at the school an hour beforehand and then mingled with the parents,staff and students.He also visited some of the classrooms where students were preparing for the Prize-Giving.
    He then proceeded to deliver a marvellous speech about education in Swaziland and at Mananga College in particular.We were all astounded at his ability to assess the school in such a short time.
    He only told me afterwards about what he had done!

    Chris Thorpe


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