On the 29th August, The Guardian broke a story about sixteen Year 12 students at St Olave’s Grammar School being removed from the school, possibly unlawfully, after they ‘failed to get top grades’ in AS level or internal exams. Within a week, the school backed down under pressure from parents, education lawyers and even MPs, and readmitted those students on the 1st September. But the Olave’s story has drawn attention to much broader issues with well-performing state schools throwing their students under the bus for a higher spot in the league tables.
I was a student at Olave’s for seven years, leaving in 2014. The school has highly selective entrance requirements to Year 7, high GCSE requirements to progress to the Sixth Form and, as was commonly the practice while I was there, further ones to continue to Year 13. It has had these requirements for a long time, and a couple of people I knew weren’t allowed back to finish their A-levels when I was there.
What the school did with these students, and the ones this week, was morally wrong, and possibly illegal. It was clearly not done in the best interests of students, but instead in the best interests of the school’s league table position. It is a lot easier to get 94%” A*/B grades if you cut out the bottom 10% of the cohort. These actions were part of the culture of the school, which pushed students hard and let some of them fall by the wayside.
Every student there knew the school was in a way an exam factory, and that it prioritised what it called ‘excellence’ – mostly academically, but also in music or sports. Aydin Önaç, the headteacher who taught us to pronounce his name ‘Önaç, as in, a natural talent,’ was obsessed with achieving good results. Anyone in my cohort or the ones around mine remembers the bizarre assemblies he gave, declaring not only that ‘Bs are not on our radar’ but also that St Olave’s students were ‘five times better’ than those at the local comprehensive.
I won’t deny that I enjoyed my time at Olave’s, or that the teachers treated me well and gave me lots of opportunities. But students who struggled to meet its tough academic standards were left behind, with no support. One of my old school friends is clear that he felt failed by the school for giving him neither academic nor pastoral support when he was having a hard time. If you had academic problems, it was obvious the school didn’t really care about you.
As Olave’s is a local authority maintained school, it is subject to Department of Education guidance that states that it is illegal to exclude a student for non-disciplinary matters, although there is some grey area regarding its applicability to St Olave’s Sixth Form. But what St Olave’s did would be completely legal for schools not maintained by local authorities, which account for two thirds of all state secondary schools in the country.
As Wadham’s SU president last year, one area I worked on was policy relating to academic monitoring and suspension. As it stands, it is in Wadham College policy – and the policy of many other colleges – that students must be maintaining “satisfactory academic performance”. Generally this means working at a 2:1 standard, and it is possible for students who have suspended their studies for health reasons to be refused permission to resume them if they do not achieve a 2:1 in collections before their return. Having spent many meetings with College staff and tutors discussing this, I am certain that the reality of Wadham’s suspension and readmission processes is one which is flexibly applied, takes into account the circumstances of the case, and where people do try and do the best for students. The provision is there, however, and tutors did defend it every time I objected on behalf of the student body, against the principle of throwing someone out on something that isn’t a failing grade.
I hope some of the academics who have followed the St Olave’s story in the news this week also consider it next time they are thinking about their own students, and their own academic policies. Equally, while the NUS has rightfully campaigned against the Teaching Excellence Framework and the marketisation of higher education, it is important to consider how these ruthless attitudes towards students, prioritising prestige and outward displays of achievement over learning and development, affect children and teenagers.