A couple of weeks ago, The West Australian newspaper ran a story that claimed to unveil WA's Real Top 50 Schools. The list of 50 included 24 public schools, 16 Catholic schools and ten independent schools. The list ranked schools by the perceived educational value they added to their student's ATAR scores. The West Australian recognised that the article was "expected to spark debate about the ingredients of a good school". And so it has.

It is hard to believe we still rank schools by a single measure, such as ATAR gain. I understand that some of the reasoning for ranking schools comes from a good place. Parents have a right to know how schools perform academically so they can choose the best school to maximise their child's likelihood of success in the world. I agree with most of that. Academic success does matter, and it has implications for students' success in our society. The problem is that success, like learning, is a complex business. And ATAR results are but one ingredient in a good school.

It's hard to think of any current product or service where we determine its value by one measure. We are unlikely, for example, to buy a car just because its fuel economy is terrific. If that were the case, after a quick google search, I would be zipping around town in a BMW i3. A cute car for the city, but with a battery range of 260 km, it makes a trip out of town tricky. My driving needs are complex. My car needs to be safe and comfortable for a family of four, a friend or a dog, and drive on a beach. And it needs to go 700 km without refuelling. Evaluating a car's worth based on one measure, like fuel economy, is unlikely to provide me with the vehicle that best serves my needs.

Likewise, schools provide a service, in partnership with parents, to students that help them negotiate the complex and undulating terrain that is their future. We need a service to meet those needs. Of course, we want students to be academically strong to multiply their opportunities. We also want students to find their strengths and passions and use them to live purposefully in service to a community that matters to them. We all know intelligent adults who have pursued careers that have made them miserable and have turned back to a passion or purpose. We want our students to enjoy learning, work effectively with others, have courage, persist through challenges and make the world a better place. A good education meets these complex needs.

We could measure and compare the items above to determine a good school. And maybe we should. However, in the short term, there are more straightforward ways to measure excellence in a school. One way is to visit a school you are interested in and speak with the leaders, the teachers, the students and the parents. These conversations will indicate what the school sees as success, and they will supplement the sorts of data you find elsewhere.

In the coming months, rankings and ratings will be back on the agenda as kids and parents process Year 12 results. As an educational community, I hope we can strive to maintain our perspective on what a great school looks like. If we still see value in comparing and contrasting schools, let's do this maturely by looking at more holistic ways to identify and measure the many ingredients that make up great schools.