22 August 2022

The Monday Briefing: Play the Game

The Monday Briefing: Play the Game

Thursday - A Level results day - brought with it the usual rollercoaster of emotions. 

The majority of our students came with trepidation and left with broad smiles, delighted at having got to where they had hoped. The odd student had a more complex challenge to solve, but with perseverance, a telephone and a keen eye on the UCAS website, those issues were overcome. 

Then there is always the case which sticks in one’s mind. 

On this occasion, it was of one student who had missed her place by one mark, which meant she had missed one grade, in one subject - which derailed her long standing plans of making medical school. It is the pursuit of a dream she has worked her life to make a reality - and it is a destiny she is entirely deserving of fulfilling.

Being able to access the results the day before gave us the chance to deduce a strategy for the problem - and we are in the process of reviewing the marking across the papers to ensure that there is every chance that justice will prevail. We owe it to her and her parents - the role of the College remains incomplete until all of our students have secured the next stage in their education.

When the dust settled on the morning of highs and one - hopefully temporary - low, I had a chance to assess the situation on a national level. Inevitably, grades were lower, on average, than the CAGs of 2020 and the TAGs of 2021, but, less inevitably, they were higher than the last set of exam results in 2019. Taking account of the national picture, however, doesn’t really provide me with any real conclusivity about how the College has performed.

Another feature of the afternoon, all too prevalent on results day, was the barrage of releases through social, and more traditional media from schools across the country: ‘an incredible % of A* grades’; ‘a phenomenal % of our students scored A*-A; ‘staggering % from our cohort in terms of A*-B grades’. I find such an approach both frustrating and completely misguided.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a prospective parent about this very topic. We spoke of the nature of the College being ‘a best kept secret’, something I’ve written about before, and the fact the EIC doesn’t make a big thing about plastering our results, though they are, to all intents and purposes, very impressive, in percentages widely.

Firstly, I expressed my bemusement regarding the fact that some schools and colleges saw no problem with taking this approach for the last two years, and did so quite shamelessly. The CAGs and TAGs, determined in the first instance by schools themselves, surely provided no reasonable grounds whatsoever for claiming some kind of superiority against other schools. Each school seemed to have a different system for producing these grades with the exams cancelled - and so preaching to have done better than other institutions, whilst, in effect, to be playing the game by different rules, just seemed rather self gratifying to me.

I had hoped that this year, with all of the trials and tribulations of the last two years, perhaps we could have a different approach, but, alas, no. The volume was turned to maximum, and perhaps even higher, whereby schools up and down the country, and foremost among them, selective ones, bellowed statistics across the web as though the grades which the students achieved were all that mattered.

Such an approach completely ignores the context of individual students and what they have been through to get to this point, narrowing the scope of understanding towards the student as a whole. It also belittles the achievements of those students who managed to score mid-ranking A Level scores, fulfilling their potential in the process, to get to where they wanted to go. 

Isn’t the student who does this every bit as successful as the triple A* student who meets their own expectations?

My views on the matter were summed up very well in a tweet by Simon Smith, a fellow Headteacher and blogger, who stated at around lunchtime on results day that “Boasting about A level results when you’re highly selective in your intake is not a great look.”

With over 1,200 likes, it seems that I’m not the only one who agrees, and some of the responses were quite affirming for me to read:

  • “The problem comes about when achievement is described simply in terms of attainment rather than progress from starting points, and taking into account contextual factors. The latter approach opens up the chance to celebrate the achievement of a very wide range of students.”
  • “To only focus on A and A* is so wrong, vulgar in fact.”
  • “Results day really annoys me. Let’s celebrate our students with the A*s and forget the children who did amazingly well to get Cs or Ds. I’d publish every child’s name.”
  • “Celebrate the achievements of students, absolutely, but to promote headline figures, without recognition that students need very high GCSE results to get in, is disingenuous to say the least.”
  • “It's a great look to those who don't know, don't care or don't pay attention to anything beyond the surface of the celebration.”

At Ealing Independent College, we are not selective, and it will stay that way. 

That means we have students who score A* grades, who get into Russell Group universities, some who even get into Medical Schools and strive for institutions like Oxford or Cambridge. Not all of them get there, of course, but some do. 

We also have a number of students who we provide the opportunity to attempt A Levels, despite middling GCSE results, or some who retake GCSEs after having failed the first time around. They have often been turned away by the school where they completed Year 11, but did not meet their requirements to progress on to Sixth Form. We support them and guide them, although we know there is a strong chance that the best they do may be C grades, whilst it all may go wrong, and they could get one or more U grades. Whatever happens, they deserve the chance.

An additional important point to stress is that we don’t simply ‘cut’ students here if they have a poor Year 12. Whilst some institutions choose to, in order to safeguard results in Year 13, we assess options, have a discussion about a plan B, and find a mutually agreed way forward - which most often involves continuing into their final year.

I, for one, am utterly delighted that we are not selective. If we were, I would not have been able to oversee the progress of our Year 13s this year:

-The boy who came to his first interview at Ealing frustrated and disillusioned with the education system after being told at his previous school that the only courses open to him were BTECs. He refused to settle for this, and had his sights set on studying Law at a Russell Group university. His ABB means that is now a reality.

-The girl who overcame family tragedy, and never uses it as an excuse, who has had knockback after knockback from medical courses at universities, but still scored AAB, and will no doubt get to wherever she wants to be.

-The boy who underwent a crisis of confidence in his GCSE year at another school, had to abort that attempt, and then retake the exams the next year with us. After having scored excellent results in these, he then took four A Levels, and got A*AAB in them.

-The boy who came to us at the end of his Year 10 on the verge of exclusion from another school, knuckled down from day one to take advantage of a fresh start, won our scholarship competition, and then went on to score ABB.

-The girl who has consistently overachieved, and scored A grades, though her CAT4 scores have always pointed towards Bs. Work ethic, dedication and commitment is what will make her an exceptional doctor one day.

-The boy who failed his subjects in Year 12 at another school, then decided to restart A Level with us whilst pursuing a promising football career. His grades have kept him on track for a Sports Management degree.

-The girl who was turned away from her intended course because she scored a grade 6 in Chemistry, decided to come to EIC, and scored BBBC in her A Levels through sheer grit and determination.

-The boy who was told at the end of his Year 12 at another school that his UCAS predictions would be CCC, but had his heart set on a Russell Group university. An A* in Geography later, alongside good results in his others, means his ambition remains a possibility.

-The boy who scored outstanding GCSE results, left us to try a bigger Sixth Form, then became disillusioned with how it was going, returned to us, reignited his passion, and scored A*AA

-The girl who moved to the UK and took her GCSEs with us, then moved on to a Sixth Form closer to her home. After some troubles there in Year 12, she decided to return to EIC, having at one point considered giving education up entirely. She is now going to her first choice university in September.

These are ten real stories from our Year 13. None of them had a simple, linear path to success. They had to strive, push and fight for what they have now - they did not have it easy.

With another series of Strictly just around the corner, my mind is drawn to how those celebrities who win the competition do so rarely because they are the best dancer, but because they have experienced the ‘J’ word: The Journey - Joe McFadden, Ore Oduba, Chris Hollins, Stacey Dooley and Bill Bailey may well have been inferior to other contestants during their respective contests, but that does not make them unjust winners. In fact, it makes their achievements all the more commendable.

The means by which they had to squeeze every drop of ability from themselves in order to prevail reminds me of our students at the College. It is that very trait which sets them up so well for life beyond EIC - university, work and contributing positively to society.

Nothing is taken for granted here, victories are hard won, and we celebrate them all.

Not just those with an A or A* next to their name.

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