"You only want to get rid of my child to make the school look good!"
I don't think I was ever so hurt as by this parent’s comment, some years ago now. Her child was in Year 12, which I still tend to call the lower-sixth: there were real problems with behaviour and attendance and, yes, a refusal to do any significant work. The chances of the student gaining any A-level grades the next year were zero, and the time had come to part: but not in order to improve the school’s league table position.
Yet the accusation was made.
You'll have spotted where I'm coming from. St Olave's Grammar School, in Oprington, south-east London, is in the news, accused of giving the push to 16 Year 12 students who, it’s alleged, gained less than B grades in summer assessments. A sense of universal outrage followed.
In theory, students should be permitted to finish any course or phase they start – unless unacceptable behaviour makes that impossible. Such behaviour might, in my view, include outright refusal to do the necessary work. Such intransigence in a sixth-former can harm both the cohort and the school’s desired ethos of commitment and hard work.
I suspect, though, that the 16 in question weren’t work-shy: a C grade’s a long way from failure. When I last looked, A-level pass grades ranged from A* to E. To be sure, the bottom grade’s an unlikely passport to a top university: but it’s still a pass.
Let's be honest. This kind of culling has always gone on. It is unique neither to selective state schools nor to academically high-powered independent schools, occurring regardless of school type or sector. At A level, just for once, I can't blame the government. I’ve written many times about the perverse incentives created for schools by the sheer pressure of government targets. But A levels aren’t part of that.
Here the motive is not to get Ofsted off the school’s back, merely to make it look better than the opposition.
An era has just ended, one in which almost every student took AS levels as a half-way step – a useful indicator of A2 success. Ever since Curriculum 2000 was born, I’ve heard of schools refusing to allow sixth-formers to continue with the subject beyond AS if they scored less than a B, or perhaps a C.
So schools preventing students from continuing after lower AS results were manipulating their results and thus their league table position. At least, you might argue, they didn't kick the kid out! Though doing so is arguably a little less dishonest than the other pernicious practice of refusing to enter for the final exam any candidate unlikely to achieve a top grade.
Competition 'engenders wrong behaviours'
Asked about such behaviours 15 years ago, a jocular fellow head remarked to the press, “Top-scoring schools have always shot a few to encourage the others." Clearly, such tactics didn't die with Admiral Byng.
I’m not naive. Though I've never regarded competition between schools as an especially worthy or moral policy for driving up standards, it does have a certain driving force. But it engenders wrong behaviours – such as preventing students continuing to the end of the course following mediocre performance at a half-way assessment point.
Does a school really have to achieve a particular position in the league tables? I can understand the allure but cannot accept it: I fear the thirst for top positions has more to do with the egos of heads and governing bodies than with any competitive necessity for the school.
It’s wrong. Education is for pupils, not the school. Results belong to the student, not the institution: though the school may rightfully bask in the reflected glory of what its candidates achieve.
Perhaps we need a statement from the education secretary to that effect, so that the temptation for schools to achieve stratospheric results at such human cost is proscribed in the public and educational mind.
I might help us to reset our collective moral compass.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford
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