‘We tell them they’re the best students in the world’

5th February 2016 at 00:00
New BBC documentary explores the philosophy of ‘Britain’s Brainiest School’

It is results day, and 16-year-old Seren (pictured above, far right) does not have the results that she needs for her first choice of college. “They asked for nine A*s. I got seven,” she says of her GCSE grades (equivalent to Nationals). “I’ve still done well. I’ve just not done well enough.”

Her mother, however, is more optimistic: Seren just needs to think about how much of her soul she is willing to sell, she says.

Seren gives her mother a look. “That’s a bit of a weird metaphor to use for just going to sixth form.”

But Cardiff Sixth Form College (CSFC) is not an ordinary sixth form. For three years, it has topped the A-level (comparable to Highers) league tables. In 2015, 95 per cent of its pupils achieved either A* or A. One student even scored 100 per cent in all three of his science subjects. This year, 20 pupils have received offers from Oxbridge.

CSFC is the focus of a new documentary, Britain’s Brainiest School – one of a series of BBC programmes looking at the education system in Wales. The cameras follow Seren and her fellow high-achievers as they apply for scholarship places at the £15,000-a-year college. “When I was in Year 7, I got 85 per cent in a maths test, and I cried,” Seren tells the girl sitting next to her. “I think that explains why none of the other kids liked me.”

But Yasmin Sarwar, who set up the college in a church hall in 2004, insists that its results are not simply attributable to pre-admission screening. “Obviously, we’re selective,” she says. “But I think what really drives the success is the fact that, from the first day they arrive at the college, they’re told that they are the best students from around the world.

“Because we have a culture to succeed, I think that culture is imbibed by the whole student body and the whole staff.”

The college’s results stand in stark contrast to the rest of Wales’. The latest Pisa rankings, published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, show that Welsh pupils have fallen significantly behind the rest of the UK. Welsh 15-year-olds were ranked 43rd out of the 65 countries for maths, 41st for reading and 36th for science. And the country has been slipping down the global Pisa table since 2007. But Ms Sarwar points out that, until the first international students arrived in 2008, her pupils came entirely from Welsh schools. And 98 per cent of her teaching staff taught in Welsh comprehensives.

‘Our teachers just teach’

“We have a fantastic pool of teachers in Wales,” she says. “But our teachers are left to teach. They’re given the autonomy to look at what’s best for their students. We have the mentality that we have the best students in the world. Now educate them.”

This refreshing attitude was something that impressed the TV programme’s producerdirector, Emily Hogan Turner. “The school is immensely supportive of its teachers,” she says. “The paperwork is taken away from them. They have freedom to develop their own curriculum. As long as students are getting results and getting into good universities, teachers are left to do things their own way.”

The school has a large administration department to deal with paperwork. Lunch and after-school duties are carried out by support staff. “The teachers at CSFC teach long hours, but they only teach,” Ms Hogan Turner says.

The college is clear about its expectations for pupils: 100 per cent in exams. “Their approach is: aim for 100 per cent, because you can always come down from that,” says Ms Hogan Turner. “That’s an Eastern thing.”

Ms Sarwar was brought up in Malaysia, and her educational theory combines the Asian drive for academic success with the British emphasis on creativity and communication. “You could be the next Nobel Prize winner in physics,” she says, “but if you can’t communicate it, if you can’t discuss it or debate it, there’s no real point in knowledge.”

The college holds regular mindfulness classes (“Later on in life, we might understand how it was helpful,” one pupil tells the cameras) and encourages students to join debating societies and science competitions. “I went in thinking that there would be these robot students,” Ms Hogan Turner says. “I was surprised by how much emphasis they placed on arming pupils to really make a contribution to the world.

“Yasmin instilled in them a sense of moral responsibility. She told them, time and time again, ‘You’re the best and brightest young minds in the world, and you have a duty to become doctors and lawyers and engineers. Not because you want a nice house, but to help people less fortunate than yourself’.”

It is for just such a moral education that Seren’s mother is willing to sell her daughter’s soul. “She had the top results in her school,” she tells Ms Sarwar.

Ms Sarwar is persuaded; she tells Seren that the scholarship is hers.

“OK,” says Seren. A moment later, it sinks in. “Really?” she says. “Wow. Really?”


Britain’s Brainiest School, part of the ‘How Wales Works’ season, is on BBC iPlayer.

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