Market forces

The transition from year 11 through to year 13 has always been a tricky one. Kids who’ve done well in their GCSEs are full of it. They’ve got the grades they worked hard for, they’re taking their driving tests, they’re working part-time and earning some cash, they’re going out spending the cash (mainly on insurance and petrol).

They’re also trying to make the biggest academic step they’ll ever encounter. The jump from GCSE to A-Level is quite large. In your one chosen subject that you’ve always excelled at (for me it was maths) that’s not such a difficulty. But for the other subjects, however well you did at GCSE the A-Level comes as a shock to the system (as Chemistry did to mine). So if you’ve achieved a B, or even an A, in a subject, you may well struggle at A-Level.

For many students year 12 is the end of the academic line. Their teachers know it. Their parents know it. Often the last person to want to know it is the student themselves. Sometimes they have to be convinced. But, as we are talking about bright kids, they usually do. And their school and their parents help them onto the appropriate next stage of their journey.

This happens in every sixth form, every year. For me it was the worst part of being a teacher, to have to advise a student that based on every thing we could know that if they carried on they would fail the qualification.

And that is the most important word here, “fail”. As I write this I note that there are seven possible grades a student taking an A-Level can achieve. Only one of them constitutes a fail, a “U”. All the rest are pass grades and have value. To the student.

If a school is suggesting to students who could achieve Es, Ds, Cs or even Bs that they should perhaps leave the school (or indeed more than suggesting, chucking out), then I can only see one real reason behind this. And it not the one you are probably thinking of.

Schools with sixth forms obviously have their results published. They are even put into league tables by the media. They are not unimportant. But they are not obsessed over by the media (and the government) in the same way that GCSE results are. This is for a simple reason. Not all schools have sixth forms. Only around 2/3rds of state secondary schools have one. These means that sixth form achievement cannot be used an accountability measure across the system. Obviously where a school does have a sixth form it is monitored and forms part of the Ofsted inspection. But in terms of accountability the focus is on GCSEs. Ofsted issues with sixth forms are usually borne out of the size of the year groups and the breadth of the offer.

So I do not go along with conventional wisdom and place all the blame on the nasty accountability systems that schools have to navigate. Given that those systems are now responsible for many of the ills that beset our schools it would be simple to do that, most everyone would believe it. However, schools are much more complex than that.

If it’s not about accountability then why does a school feel the need to manipulate (and I can think of no better word) its A-Level results? Remember the cost this comes with. If the student leaves then there is the financial cost of having lost a student along with a potential retention claw-back. I can think of only one reason and I’m afraid it’s not an edifying one.


Being able to quote an extremely high percentage figure for students achieving A*/A is all about marketing. Which means that indirectly it’s about funding.

Generally speaking, schools with sixth forms would like to have a larger one. More often than not (and I accept that recently this is becoming less stark) A-Level classes are smaller than GCSE classes. The kids are a bit more mature and there are fewer behaviour issues. A larger sixth form is easier (mainly) to deal with than a larger year 11. If a school has maxed out its PAN then the only place for it to look to for additional income is the sixth form. Each extra student brings in around £4k and at the margins adds virtually zero cost (save for exam entries).

So if getting rid of, say, 16 students at the end of year 12 improves the marketing so that, say, 25 external students join year 12 next year, then that’s good business.

But, and please read this bit before you go off the rails about the last bit, it is a reprehensible, intolerable practice that has no part in a state school system. There is a world of difference between providing year 12 students with appropriate advice and guidance following their mocks (or AS’s), and throwing them out because they have failed to meet a bar you set in order to enable you market your school. The former is good practice, carried out for the benefit of the individual child. The latter is a shameful practice that makes me reach for the teaching standards.

So, I’m one of the governors of a secondary school with a sixth form. What do I do? We have students leave the school at the end of year 12. As I said above, this will happen. We do discuss this when we review results. And we take on trust the answers we get as to why students have left. We take it on trust because our leadership team and all our staff are worthy of trust. They prove this time and time again. But perhaps we should do more. Perhaps we need to have the retention figure as part of the stats pack we review. This is something we will no doubt discuss now.

But more importantly I guess we also have to ask what pressures as governors we put on the school regarding outcomes. We have to keep ourselves aware of what is possible naturally and what can only be achieved through some form of gaming of the system. We have to be aware that whilst one of our roles is to ensure that a school can achieve the best possible outcomes for its students, we are also responsible for the well-being of the staff that work to achieve that. We have to work to reduce the possibility that we could apply so much pressure as to make good people do bad things.

I’m glad to hear this morning that the school that started this hare running has relented and agreed to retain 16 young people and help guide them towards the next stage of their lives. This will certainly be of benefit to those children. What I also expect is that the staff at that school will feel better about themselves this morning, and perhaps the governors and leadership at the school can recognise that there are more things that students and parents look for in a school than just the percentage of A*/A at A-Level.

That’s a lesson we can all learn.

One thought on “Market forces

  1. Well said.

    At “the school in question” four Governors opposed the harsh grade-exclusions policy introduced by the new Head – where a single C at AS was enough to get “expelled”.
    (A handful of other Governors expressed concerns privately.)

    The previous Head had a “humane” framework as you described.
    It was expressed as “usually stay in the 6th form”, ” Students with weaker AS would have a discussion”, “exceptionally consider whether the student should stay”.

    And those four Governors were themselves “expelled” for seeking to protect students from the harsh approach !

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