A-level play­ing field

New anal­y­sis puts com­pre­hen­sives on top, but pri­vate schools in­sist that their high-achiev­ers have less room to im­prove than their state-school peers

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL - ELEANOR BUSBY

In terms of progress, state schools are out­per­form­ing in­de­pen­dents

SCHOOLS WILL re­ceive their AS and A-level re­sults next week af­ter a nervewrack­ing wait.

The lead­ing in­de­pen­dent schools ar­guably have less to fear from the per­for­mance ta­bles, con­sid­er­ing that they dom­i­nate the top end of them. But a new study by a for­mer Depart­ment for Ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy ad­viser sug­gests that the top com­pre­hen­sive schools ac­tu­ally out­per­form the lead­ing fee-pay­ing schools when it comes to the progress made by A-level stu­dents.

How­ever, the Head­mas­ters’ and Head­mistresses’ Con­fer­ence (HMC), which rep­re­sents the coun­try’s lead­ing in­de­pen­dent schools, ar­gues that its schools have less op­por­tu­nity to progress be­cause their pupils’ GCSE re­sults are al­ready so high.

The new anal­y­sis, shared ex­clu­sively with Tes, shows that av­er­age pupil progress at the 50 com­pre­hen­sive schools with the high­est av­er­age A-level point scores in Eng­land was higher than at the top 50 in­de­pen­dent schools and top 50 gram­mar schools.

The same was true of pupils aged 16-18 at the top 10 and top 20 com­pre­hen­sive, in­de­pen­dent and gram­mar schools (see box, right).

‘Verg­ing on scan­dalous’

Tom Rich­mond, a for­mer se­nior pol­icy ad­viser at the DFE who now teaches at St Dominic’s Sixth-form Col­lege in north-west Lon­don, based his re­search on govern­ment data cov­er­ing the 2016 re­sults. He cal­cu­lated the value added by schools, us­ing key stage 4 re­sults as a bench­mark, to find out whether pupils made more, less or the same amount of progress as the na­tional av­er­age from GCSE to A level.

In his study, a progress score of zero means pupils were mak­ing progress from their GCSES to their A lev­els in line with the na­tional av­er­age for all pupils.

The re­search finds lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween the top-per­form­ing com­pre­hen­sive schools and the top-per­form­ing fee-pay­ing schools.

On av­er­age, pupils at pri­vate schools had a higher progress score (+0.07) than pupils at state schools (-0.07) across the coun­try.

But a com­par­i­son of the top 10 pri­vate schools and com­pre­hen­sive schools reveals that the com­pre­hen­sive schools made a quar­ter of an A-level grade more progress than the na­tional av­er­age.

“This anal­y­sis shows that, while some pri­vate schools do a good job of ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren and young peo­ple, many do not,” ar­gues Rich­mond, a se­nior pol­icy fel­low at the think­tank Pol­icy Ex­change.

The Con­ser­va­tive man­i­festo, pub­lished in May, set out an ex­pec­ta­tion for at least 100 of the top in­de­pen­dent schools to spon­sor acad­e­mies or set up free schools. It sug­gested that the state sec­tor would ben­e­fit from the

in­volve­ment of in­de­pen­dent schools, but Rich­mond’s find­ings sug­gest oth­er­wise.

“It is some­what alarm­ing that the top state com­pre­hen­sives seem to be de­liv­er­ing a bet­ter stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion than the top pri­vate schools for a frac­tion of the cost,” he says.

Rich­mond ar­gues that for some of these schools to con­tinue charg­ing par­ents up to £30,000 a year is “verg­ing on scan­dalous”.

But the re­search has been heav­ily crit­i­cised by in­de­pen­dent schools. Mike Buchanan, HMC chair, says: “This re­port is mis­lead­ing be­cause it for­gets that most in­de­pen­dent school pupils do so well at GCSE that they have less [dis­tance] to leap to get top grades at A level. It is a per­verse the­o­ret­i­cal uni­verse in which pupils with top grades at both GCSE and A level are seen as mak­ing lit­tle progress.” Barn­aby Lenon, chair­man of the In­de­pen­dent Schools Coun­cil, brands the anal­y­sis “ab­surd”. He adds: “To im­ply there is not out­stand­ing teach­ing go­ing on [in these top in­de­pen­dent schools] is com­pletely wrong. It is just that they have to­tally cracked GCSES.”

Rich­mond’s find­ings high­light the neg­a­tive progress score at the pres­ti­gious in­de­pen­dent school North Lon­don Col­le­giate, but Lenon says: “Vir­tu­ally no other school in Bri­tain has achieved the same GCSE re­sults as North Lon­don Col­le­giate be­cause vir­tu­ally every girl gets a top grade in every exam they take.” Progress mea­sures are more ef­fec­tive when look­ing at a wider abil­ity range, adds Lenon.

Mal­colm Trobe, deputy gen­eral sec­re­tary of the As­so­ci­a­tion of School and Col­lege Lead­ers, says Rich­mond’s con­clu­sions could be re­garded as “over-egging the pud­ding” – but says the re­search shows that state schools are per­form­ing well de­spite fund­ing con­straints.

“It is an in­di­ca­tion that the qual­ity of teach­ing in both sec­tors looks to be broadly the same,” he says. “So we’d say ‘well done’ to those in the state sec­tor, par­tic­u­larly with how ap­palling the fund­ing is be­tween 16 to 18.”

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