The secrets of top-ranking schools

Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies
Stuart Nicholson, Principal of Cambridge Centre for Sixth-form Studies

It has been interesting to observe the furore caused by the decision of St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington to refuse to allow some of its students to return this September.

The school has a reputation as being one of the top-performing grammar schools in the country, selecting its pupils on the basis of their academic ability. Such selection on entry appears to be fairly uncontentious, because of everyone’s familiarity with it. Similarly, the idea that a school may set entry criteria for its sixth-form is also familiar and causes no ire, despite the inevitable anxiety on GCSE results day when a sought-for sixth-form place hinges on them.

What has caused a reaction at St Olave’s is their decision to axe pupils’ places at the end of year 12 on the basis of their AS results, or the results of their internal end-of-year examinations. The school required them to achieve a grade B or above in three out of four of these examinations in order to be permitted to continue into year 13. Reports indicate that 16 pupils have fallen foul of the three Bs requirement and that a further group of students is only being allowed to continue on a discretionary basis and were asked to sign a contract such that if they did not get a minimum B grade in their mocks the school reserved the right not to enter them for their A Level examinations.

There is no doubt that St Olave’s achieves excellent results: this year’s A Levels saw 75% of all subjects being graded A* or A and 96% were at A* to B grades, far above the national averages. There is no doubt that results like these are achieved only in highly selective schools, and perhaps parents are being naive if they enter their children into highly selective schools and then don’t expect the schools actually to exercise selection at various points along the way.

If achieving a top league table position on your academic results is a critical part of a school’s identity, then this hard line is always going to feature. I have no doubt that whilst St Olave’s may have hit the headlines, the vast majority of, possibly all, schools that live by being at the top of academic league tables adopt a similar culling strategy at the end of year 12. I have seen it far too many times both in state and in independent schools to be in any doubt.

Is it necessarily wrong? Contrary to what the parents at St Olave’s might be arguing, it is certainly not inconsistent. Highly academic schools will argue that it is only by maintaining the highest results that they generate cohorts with the expectation of achieving the very highest results. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you like. I doubt that such schools ignore their year 13 criteria in their policy documentation, and parents who subsequently complain that they don’t like a policy that was clear at the outset don’t really deserve much sympathy.

That is not to say that I agree with such an approach. At its most fundamental, objective evidence does not support selection as an effective means of raising attainment. There is however also a basic moral judgement to be made. If you grant admission to a student at the beginning of a course, then there is an obligation on the school as well as the pupil. The pupil can only undertake to work hard, not guarantee to succeed, and if they work hard, it is the school’s responsibility to support them through thick and thin. Only in those rare instances where a student is absolutely failing at the end of year 12 and there is no realistic prospect of passing at the end of year 13 does it make sense to move them to a different route, whether in your own school or elsewhere.

I regard this as the only honourable approach, and I enjoy the backing of my colleagues and our governing body at CCSS in applying it. Some of our students achieve a clean sweep of top grades, and we and they are rightly proud of their success, but we are no less proud of those who make progress from a lower starting point and succeed in achieving much more modest grades. This is no less valuable education than that which secures high-flying league table positions for very selective schools.

Whilst we continue to set illogical store by flawed league table publicity, I am afraid such decisions such as those at St Olave’s will continue to happen up and down the country, irrespective of whether it is right or defensible.

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