Less able pupils 'culled'

25th April 2008 at 01:00
Independent schools stop them sitting exams to protect league rankings

Independent schools stop them sitting exams to protect league rankings

Independent schools are cheating league tables by stopping pupils from taking exams unless they are confident of getting top grades, according to leading headteachers.

In an act known as "soft culling," schools charging thousands of pounds a term are persuading pupils either not to enter exams, or to sit them elsewhere.

Others are entering weaker pupils as private candidates so they do not appear on the records, it is claimed. The information comes from independent heads who are critical of the practices that colleagues in some other schools have resorted to.

Geoffrey Boult, chairman of the Boarding Schools' Association, said headteachers were put under increasing pressure from governors if they want less able students to take GCSEs and A-levels.

"It is absolutely happening in independent schools," he said. "League tables are a tyranny. They are having a toxic effect on schools, forcing teaching to the test and a narrow curriculum. Everyone wants to be associated with success, but with education success is a time bomb that goes off later in life."

Mr Boult, who is headmaster of the pound;23,325 a year Giggleswick School in North Yorkshire, will be speaking next week about the problem at the association's annual headteachers' conference in York.

The focus on results could be "disastrous" for boarding schools, because they traditionally take pupils with a wider range of academic ability, Mr Boult said.

Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of pound;26,445-a-year Harrow School in north London, said some schools entered pupils privately so they did not show up on their school results. "I think it is absolutely dreadful, and is a reflection of the exam-driven culture which afflicts some schools anxious to retain their place in the league tables," he said.

The principal of one independent sixth form college in London, which offers intensive exam preparation, said the process of schools getting rid of pupils they did not want to take exams was known as "soft culling".

"I have spoken to some students who I know have been dissuaded from taking exams after their mock results," said the principal, who did not want to be named. "The AS system has provided more information to schools on the potential examination success of students. There will be schools that look for any mechanism to improve grades."

Schools often persuaded pupils and parents that it would not be in the students' interest to achieve low grades. Those pupils would sometimes go to crammers and enter exams privately, said the principal.

Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's School at Barnes, west London, where annual boarding fees are pound;22,872, agrees that independent schools are not allowing less able pupils to take exams because they worry about rankings.

He will use the conference to attack the impact of league tables.

"They encourage positively bad practice in schools," said Dr Stephen. "They mean perfectly decent young people are not allowed into the sixth form, and schools dissuade people from taking more difficult subjects at a time when we need more people to do them."

Private schools felt they had to guard their rankings because they are competing for parents "shelling out huge fees", Dr Stephen said.

- david.marley@tes.co.uk

LEAGUE STAKES ARE HIGH IN SECONDARIES

The pressure of league tables is all too familiar to state schools.

More than 630 secondaries with low results have been told they risk being shut down or taken over by another school if 30 per cent of pupils do not achieve five good GCSEs including English and maths by 2010. Similar pressures are on private schools - where fees soared by more than 40 per cent between 2002 and 2007 - as they try to attract parents by performing consistently well in the league tables.

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