When state schools lead, independents follow.

The Huffington Post reports that early last week, St Olave’s in Orpington, one of the UK’s leading grammar schools, made the news after it told a handful of its Sixth Form students that they could not return for their final A-Level year since they did not secure high enough grades in their exams. This move has been dismissed as draconian, no less by the parents of affected students.

However, despite this ongoing imbroglio, the summer has not been entirely dissatisfactory for the school. Habitually appearing among the highest achieving schools in league tables, it celebrated a fine crop of both GCSE and A-Level results. Of particular interest were the GCSE grades, 90% of which were graded at A*/A, corresponding to grades 7/8/9 in the new grading system, first used this year.

Despite the uncertainty which surrounded its introduction, the new system appears, in some cases, to have put state schools on a good footing, with a number of independent schools now considering whether to enter their pupils with exam boards that use it. Although there have been, and will continue to be, challenges in the transition, the risks have brought at least one important dividend in defying the conventional wisdom that ‘best practice’ is principally to be found among the independents. The lesson that can be taken from this is that where the state school system leads and succeeds, the independents follow.

This year, many independent schools were left largely unaffected by this change, opting as they do for the International GCSE (iGCSE). Sat by students around the world, with slight differences between each country, they are thought to be more rigorous and to place British students on par with their peer group across continents. Now, however, some of Britain’s leading independent schools are considering whether to make the transition to the new GCSEs, fearing that universities may favour students with a string of grade 9s over those with a similar number of A*s.

In response to this desire for change among fee-paying schools, Edexcel, one of the country’s leading exam boards, is transitioning to the numerical grading system in their English and Maths iGCSEs. John Maguire, deputy head at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, told The Daily Telegraph that many heads had pressured the exam boards to mirror the state sector’s system.

This news, that the qualification favoured and used by state schools will serve as the ‘new gold standard’ for their private school competitors, will certainly be welcomed by advocates of state schools.

his Keeping up with the Joneses-esque tale reveals a surreal irony. For while state schools often look to their private sector competitors for ideas and inspiration, the latter are increasingly looking towards the former. If anything, this new development should prompt state schools, particularly high-achieving ones, to take a moment and look within. For they seemed to have already occasioned upon the winning formula; after all, it is there where their independent school competitors are looking too. Naturally, given the diversity of circumstances and conditions between state schools, these strides may not necessarily be achievable across the board overnight. But it can certainly be a start, with the more successful state schools sharing ideas and methods with others in the state sector, as private schools such as Wellington College have been doing, even taking on the running of local academies.

Read more  When state schools lead, independents follow.

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Academies, Exams, Grammar Schools, Private Schools and Secondary.


  1. wasateacher

    Surely, St Olave’s is an example of failure. It is highly selective and yet claims that it has not been able to prepare all its students for “A” Level. This underlines the problem with judging schools by the exam results, rather than by the value added. It is very easy to get apparently impressive GCSE or “A” level results if you drop all those who will fall below your chosen standard. Wasn’t this the conclusion of the research carried out by, I think, Education Datalab, which showed that at least one large academy trust only achieved its apparently good results be getting rid of students – presumably dumping them on other schools?

    Competition in education is almost inevitable, but cooperation between schools should be encouraged and benefits both education and the pupils.

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