St Olave’s Grammar, and the deeper problems with the education system

Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, a former student at St Olave's, says that no secret was made of the school's ruthless focus on academic attainment, and argues that we must not be trapped into similar policies at university

Scandal-stricken St Olave's Grammar School

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.

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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.

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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.


  1. I read your comments with interest and see that attending a school such at St Olaves gave you an excellent education and opportunities that many would love.
    You state that ‘every student knew it was an exam factory’ yet they and their parents still deemed it to be the best school for them at the time. To get into St Olaves aged 11 many of these students would have been tutored beyond belief just to gain a place and then wonder why a few simply couldn’t keep up the academic pace. Then we have year 12 externals. They have to sit 4 strenuous exams to compete for a place against hundreds of others. They and their parents know the score. Don’t go to a school like this if you’re not up to it. Yes, what they did was wrong and illegal and now thankfully it will stop. If I had a child that age (and I haven’t), I wouldn’t even consider St Olaves because I wouldn’t want that pressure for my child. What’s the betting it was the parents who had the main say sending them their in the first place.

  2. Up-date:-

    St Olave’s Grammar School, Goddington Lane, Orpington, BR6 9SH
    6 September 2017

    TO Mr Aydin Onac, Headmaster
    Professor Peter Galloway, Chairman of Governors
    Mr Russell Walters, Clerk to the Governors and Governors
    Chair and members of the Parents’ Association
    Mr Ade Adetosoye, Deputy Chief Executive, London Borough of Bromley

    Dear Headmaster, Chairman, Governors, Parents and Colleagues
    On 5 September 2017, the Staff Association held a meeting to discuss our questions surrounding and arising from the sixth form progression policy and other recent adverse news affecting the school and its reputation.
    Of those staff who attended the meeting (50 people), there was overwhelming support for an expression of discontent and disagreement with that particular policy; dissatisfaction with the way the challenge to the policy was handled by the Governing Body and resentment at the way the Headmaster presented his interpretation of events.
    We agreed that collective action was necessary and that staff should participate in an enquiry into how unlawful policies were enacted in the school over a period of years. We believe that communication and openness were stifled and that challenges to the Headmaster were dismissed in order to pursue an unlawful course. We still believe that unless all interested parties communicate openly and honestly, there is room for abuse of power. We were surprised to have had no word from the Chairman or any other governor on the matter.
    We request an urgent meeting to which all interested parties are invited. We suggest a meeting on Monday 11 September at 3.45 in the school chapel as a reasonable time bearing in mind the need to resolve the enormous tension within the school, from staff, students and parents.
    Yours sincerely,
    Maire Sullivan
    Chair of St Olave’s Staff Association
    cc Rt Hon Nick Gibb, MP, Minister for Schools
    Mr Jo Johnson, MP

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