Standing out from the crowd

12th August 2011 at 01:00
Leading independents are masters in the art of helping their students progress to Britain's most elite universities. But some state schools and colleges are in on the `secrets' of success

Barrister, Tory MP, prime minister. Christian Brighty, chair of the student council at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, has a clear career plan that he hopes will one day take him to the top job in Downing Street. It may sound ambitious, but it is no more than you would expect from a confident and personable 17-year-old whose next step towards achieving his dream is preparing his application to study law at Oxford.

Earlier this summer, Hills Road was in the spotlight of a report for the Sutton Trust. Its research revealed that the college and four leading public schools between them sent more pupils to Oxbridge than 2,000 schools and colleges at the lower end of the academic pecking order combined.

These figures, says the Sutton Trust, are driven primarily by stark gaps in the A-level results of the schools and colleges, but the study also reveals different progression rates to highly selective universities for schools with similar average exam results.

Given its relatively affluent catchment area, and with more than its share of university dons and research scientists among local parents, you might expect to find Hills Road full of Oxbridge candidates such as Christian. But you would be wrong.

Just as typical is Kerry Bryant who is studying for A-levels in art, media studies and English literature and has ambitions to become a magazine or website designer. Kerry, who like Christian has just finished her lower sixth year, is planning to turn her back on university and apply for an apprenticeship in creative media instead.

"I've talked to the careers department quite a lot about what I wanted to do and looked at a lot of websites. I think it would be better to get experience on the job rather than going to university and building up debt," she says.

While the Sutton Trust researchers focused on Hills Road's success in Oxbridge entry - between 60 and 70 out of 1,800 students accept offers to our most elite universities each year and about 80 per cent of those come to the college from local comprehensives - principal Linda Sinclair insists there is no special treatment for the brightest students.

"We do not have a `target group' of students who are prepared specially for Oxbridge. All our students receive the same high standard of teaching and guidance and all have equal access to the many opportunities provided here - including lunchtime extension classes for students who wish to pursue a particular subject in more depth, regardless of any particular higher education intentions.

"Our aim is to ensure they progress successfully and with confidence to an appropriate destination, whatever that may be," she says.

Nine in every ten of the 900 students who sat A-level or equivalent exams this summer are expected to take up degree places this autumn, including an impressive 60 per cent earmarked for one of the country's top 30 universities. A key element of that success, says Hills Road assistant principal Nigel Taylor, is the quality of information, advice and guidance (IAG) given to students. This starts even before they enter the college and requires close co-operation with a dozen 11-to-16 partnership comprehensives and a number of other state and independent schools from across the region.

"I think a lot of our success is due to the careful way we guide students on to their courses," says Mr Taylor. "Clearly, if they do come in with predicted high grades at GCSE and talk about wanting to apply for more competitive university courses we try to make sure they are doing an appropriate range of subjects. That means at least two traditional subjects or whatever the appropriate criteria are for HE courses."

But it was important not to encourage those subjects at the expense of everything else the students might be good at, interested in and that might lead to a different pathway beyond 18, he says.

"We are looking for students who have breadth, so they might come in and do three more traditional subjects and also take up media studies, art or performance studies or something else as a fourth subject, which will not hinder their higher education progression chances but is something they are clearly good at and are going to get a lot out of."

The most important thing, says Mr Taylor, is getting the right combination of subjects for each student. This applies during their progression from Year 12 to 13 when it is discussed which subjects they might continue with if they reduce from four to three subjects.

"We encourage them to pursue the things they are interested in and are good at, provided it gives them a platform for their progression," he adds.

Christian Brighty's chosen platform consists of A-levels in English literature, French, economics and history - all traditional subjects likely to find favour with top universities. More important, though, is that they are carefully tailored to fit his career ambitions.

"The reason I'd like to do law at university is most law courses nowadays provide a year abroad studying that country's legal system and that really interests me and is one of the reasons I took French as an A-level. I'm thinking of going into law for a bit and then going into politics. Barrister, MP, prime minister," he laughs.

As part of his preparation, he has become an active member of the college's debating society and was involved in the Hills Road radio show this year. In his final year, he plans to get involved in "mooting" - a form of debating encouraged by the Law Society based on Anglo-Saxon Moot Courts - allowing him the chance to hone his skills as a legal (and no doubt future political) advocate.

It is these kind of enrichment activities at which Hills Road and other successful schools and colleges - especially in the independent sector - excel. Christian is full of praise for the talks and rigorous preparation he has received along the way to help him decide which courses match his career ambitions.

Two influential reports this summer have focused attention on whether state schools and colleges are doing enough to maximise their pupils' chances of gaining access to the top Russell Group universities and a handful of prestigious institutions.

Most recently, the Sutton Trust report, Degree of Success, published a league table showing for the first time how schools and colleges fared at getting their students into the 30 most selective universities - the so- called "Sutton 30". One of its key findings was that poor advice may be contributing to low progression rates in many comprehensives.

The second report, called Informed Choices, published by the Russell Group, concluded that what students decide to study at 16 can have a major impact on what they are able to study at degree level. It identifies certain traditional subjects (namely maths and further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and modern and classical languages) as most likely to be required to gain admission to degree courses at one of its universities. The report recommends that every student planning to go into higher education studies at least two of these so-called "facilitating" subjects at A-level.

Nigel Taylor broadly agrees and says schools and colleges must ensure that students do not make choices that would prevent them from pursuing their chosen field of study post-18.

There is also a danger of pursuing "facilitating" subjects too slavishly, and it is not uncommon for parents to pressurise their children into taking traditional subjects and nothing else. Parents often actively resist allowing them to take PE, media studies or something else they would really like to do as a fourth subject. Such pressure often comes from advice from media commentators like former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead, who advises Sunday Times readers never to let their children take a subject that ends in "studies".

"One of the unintended consequences of the Russell Group report is that people then interpret `facilitating' subjects as being important and so they think they need to do all of them," says Linda Sinclair. "We try to get the message across to students and their families in particular that they should be sensible and measured in their choices."

"It is important to have the right subjects to enable a student to progress. But you don't have to have four facilitating subjects at A- level. And that's a message we're very keen to get across: to make sure students do the right courses for them, that they will enjoy and do well at, and that will provide them with the right progression."

This "horses for courses" approach is commonly shared by schools that perform strongly in the Sutton Trust league table. One of these is Cockermouth School in Cumbria, a rural comprehensive with a genuinely mixed-ability intake where nine in ten sixth formers also progress to university, with one in every three going on to top Sutton 30 institutions.

Headteacher Geoff Walker identifies four reasons for the school's success. First, it has no competition from selective or independent schools in the area. Second, it makes no excuses for its remote catchment area and has "high expectations with no barriers to achievement". It has embraced the approach of the Aim Higher initiative (recently scrapped by the Government) that has allowed it to bring in students from leading universities to talk to pupils, especially those with no experience of higher education in their families.

Third, like Hills Road, it has a meticulous programme of guidance for students as they move up to the sixth form. Every student receives an hour's one-to-one discussion with a senior staff member to help them choose the right subjects to help their progression, whether higher education, a vocational course or employment.

The final ingredient in their success is what they do in the sixth form. Former students regularly visit the school to talk about their experiences at university, and there is a pool of local professionals who come in to prepare students for university applications and do mock interviews. The school has also developed close links with several Russell Group universities and organises regular visits to Oxford and Cambridge.

"As a community school with a rural catchment we take our responsibility to ensure all children in the area have access to these opportunities," says Mr Walker. "We are the opposite of a hot-housing school. We are highly inclusive with significant numbers who go into employment or on to vocational courses."

While most independent schools would baulk at the charge of hot-housing, many do better than their neighbouring state schools when it comes to getting their students into top universities. As the Sutton Trust report reveals, this is often despite students having similar (and sometimes inferior) average A-level point scores to local comprehensives.

One such is Truro School, a former direct grant school in Cornwall that sent two-thirds of its pupils (66 per cent) to top universities between 2006 and 2009. By comparison, one local comprehensive with an identical point score sent just 17 per cent.

There is no great secret behind Truro's success, according to head Paul Smith. He puts it down to a mixture of good guidance, good teaching, providing plenty of enrichment opportunities for students and the option to extend their learning beyond the A-level curriculum by taking the AQA's popular Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), also offered at Hills Road College and Cockermouth School.

"It's a matter of giving students confidence without arrogance and about teachers cultivating their passion for the subject. We have quite a number of teachers with PhDs and that helps," he says.

One highly successful comprehensive that is determined to do more to help its students gain places at top universities is Sharnbrook Upper School in Bedfordshire. With four successive "outstanding" ratings from Ofsted and a record of getting 85 per cent of its students into universities, you might think there was not much room for improvement. But with just one in three currently being offered places at top 30 universities, headteacher John Clemence believes more needs to be done.

"We have had eight students in a good year going to Oxbridge, but just one or two in other years. Why is that? Why is it that students who are predicted to get the highest grades are not getting in? What is it about our preparation here that might not prepare them as fully as some of the independent sector schools?"

Despite an outstanding reputation that has helped it to build up a sixth- form centre with over 700 students, Sharnbrook is looking over its shoulder at the performance of local rivals - independents Bedford Modern and Kimbolton School, where 59 and 57 per cent of their students, respectively, go on top universities, despite having almost identical average point scores. In an attempt to bridge that gap, 100 of Sharnbrook's most able Year 10 students will start a two-year AS level course in critical thinking next term.

"If we want to really prepare youngsters for Oxbridge and the Russell Group (universities) we have to start much earlier," says Mr Clemence.

"Why do we get proportionately fewer students through to Oxbridge? It's not in their genes. Some will be from families whose parents didn't go to university or were first-generation university graduates and have different aspirations. Some students think they can't cope with Oxbridge or don't want to go there.

"Part of the difficulty is trying to overcome that belief that `I can't do it'. But equally when our students do go for interview, having got the predicted grades and a fantastic reference, the interview feedback says they didn't perform well because they couldn't think laterally. That's what we need to address."

But while lower social expectations and a lack of aspiration is part of the problem, Mr Clemence believes universities should also shoulder some of the responsibility for removing barriers to fair access. The school has put great effort into improving links with Oxford, Cambridge and other Russell Group universities and has also been working closely with Kimbolton School and Bedford Morden.

Frustratingly, he says, whenever Oxford and Cambridge send a representative to talk to local schools the event is invariably held at Kimbolton or Bedford Modern, obliging Sharnbrook students and those from other local comprehensives to come to them.

"We should be spinning this on its head," he says. "They should be coming to us and we should be inviting Kimbolton and Bedford Modern to come and join us - because straight away you put up a cultural and social barrier in the way of our kids if they have to go into a private school to get delivery of something they are already suspicious of. That's what we have to deal with."

Original headline: Room at the top

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