Lies, distortions and Free School press releases

Henry Stewart's picture
It is great news that dozens of students from deprived backgrounds are going to top universities after studying at the Newham free school sixth form LAE. It has added to the transformation of education in the borough that has taken place over the last decade. See this great article from Christopher Cook in 2012 in the Financial Times, clearly impressed by the local secondary schools.

But why does LAE need to make false claims about other Newham sixth forms to justify itself? And why do newspapers like the Guardian publish these claims without question? Let's look at some of those:

LAE headteacher John Weeks in the Guardian"In Newham, there were hundreds and thousands of young people who wanted to do traditional A-levels. In the past they couldn't do them because there was no one to provide them. Either they were having to go to school in the surrounding boroughs or – if they couldn't afford to do that – they were having to take places at colleges here that didn't provide biology, maths and history. They were having to do BTecs, GNVQs and that type of thing."

This is nonsense, as Mr Weeks must know. Firstly, GNVQs disappeared over 7 years ago, as my colleague Janet Downs has pointed out. Secondly, it simply isn't true that other Newham colleges don't teach these subjects. His claim was news to Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc): "This year 101 of our students took Maths A level, 79 took Biology and 48 took History." It is not clear when Mr Weeks means by "in the past" but NewVIc has been providing "traditional" A levels to young people in Newham for over 20 years.

The LAE press release claims  "In 2011 only 39 Newham sixth formers from Newham schools secured places at Russell group universities." It goes on to compare this to the 68 that have got into Russell Group universities from LAE this year. 

The use of old statistics is odd. In 2013 60 students from NewVIc got into Russell Group universities and the figure, Eddie Playfair tells me, is likely to be higher this year. And NewVIc is only one of several sixth forms in Newham.

So why use a figure from three years ago? The key difference between then and now is that local East London university Queen Mary has joined the Russell Group since 2011. LAE's figure for 2014 includes those students going to Queen Mary, where the 2011 figure does not. As Eddie puts it, "Including Queen Mary almost doubles our figure and I guess that’s common in East London."

So how impressive is the LAE performance? Their boast, as stated in the Guardian, is that "68 of its 160-strong cohort will start at Russell Group institutions in September."

As the Guardian notes, LAE is highly selective, with students needing 5 A or A* grades to GCSE to be admitted. At NewVIc, 75 of its students came to them with 5 As or A* GCSEs. So:

At LAE, 160+ students arrived with 5 As or A*s at GCSE. 68 of its students reached Russell Group universities.
At NewVIc, 75 students arrived with 5 As or A*s at GCSE. over 60 of its students reached Russell Group universities.

The comparison is remarkable. One is tempted to ask not how LAE has done so well but why it was not able to achieve more for its highly talented students?

It also raises questions about the move to selective sixth forms. In contrast to LAE, NewVIc accepts virtually all young people who apply and has a fully comprehensive mix, including many taking vocational routes. It is truly a college that serves the whole community.

Perhaps the Guardian and the Times should follow the example of the Financial Times in looking beyond free school press releases and explore the full and impressive range of high quality educational provision in Newham.


Correction: This post originally stated the FT article was published last week, but my colleague Janet Downs points out it was 2012. Apologies but do read it, its a great piece.

Note: I am aware that proportion of students getting to Russell Group universities are not the only measure of sixth form performance. Many excellent universities (such as Bath, Surrey and Lancaster, all of which are in the top 10 in the latest Guardian list) are not part of the Russell Group and there are many other destinations for ambitious students, such as top art colleges or drama schools. Or simply the most appropriate destination for any individual young person. However I have used this measure as it is one of the key ones used by LAE itself, and repeated in the media.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 09:18

Henry - the fact that the FT published an article praising Newham's schools in March 2012 (18 months before LAE opened) rather punctures the claim that Newham's children were badly served until LAE opened. Among other things, the FT points out that one of the schools featured ensured all its pupils visited a university during their first three years and was running a 'Russell Group' path to lead pupils to one of these unis.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 09:36

Henry - you're right that going to a Russell Group uni might not be in the best interests of individual students. Unfortunately, the government push this destination as the most prestigious. But many excellent universities are not Russell Group.

One of the criticisms Ofsted made of LAE was its support for those (very few) students who wanted to go into further education or into employment was not as well developed as the support given to those wanting to go to university. It could be argued that LAE was set up specifically to encourage university entry but pupils' ambitions and circumstances change. And there are prestigious apprenticeships now on offer for high-flying students which give them paid employment (no student debt!) and training as the Independent explained last year. It's essential that schools make their pupils aware of the options and don't put the school's interest (ie the number of students going to uni, especially Russell Group) before the interests of pupils.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 10:22

Having had a look at the LEA press release I can't see it is fair to accuse them of telling any lies or downright distortions.

I am assuming that the 2009 figures they use are pertinent and relevant because they represented the status quo at the time the LAE's promoters were seeking government approval and/or looking for independent school backers. The tiny numbers going to Oxbridge and RG unis were, if you like, essentially the rationale for the LAE.

The danger in the line Henry's taking is that it is open to being spun in favour of the free schools policy. Michael Gove used frequently to say that free schools would improve the performance of other local schools. That's a bit of a Catch-22.... because credit for any improvement can be wholly or partly written down to the catalysing effects (real or imagined) of the free school.

It would be a shame if all of Eddie Playfair's efforts were ignored and the improvements at NewVic all credited to LAE! To avoid that you're going to have to venture some alternative narrative that explains why between 2009 and 2013 things improved so much at NewVic.

The fact is that -as Henry points out - NewVic has been offering traditional A-levels for 20 years - yet it has only been in the past few years that the numbers going to RG or equivalent unis have looked at all healthy. Something raised their game. What?

There are some things in the LAE press release that really are undeniably impressive :

1. That LAE s sending more kids to Oxbridge this year than every 6th form in the borough put together used to.
2. That its outcomes are better than those of fee-charging Ampleforth and Millfield.
3. ....and (if true) that its figures in its first year would have made it the top-performing sixth form college last year.

For what it's worth, I thought the LAE did a decent job of crediting the 11-16 feeders too.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 14:37

Barry - leaving aside the argument that going to a Russell Group uni may not necessarily be the best option for individual pupils (it's just another 'measure' introduced by the Government and schools may not be working in the best interests of pupils by pushing Russell Group heavily), Ofsted said that while LAE was Good:

'Not enough students achieve the high grades at AS level of which they are capable. Not enough students make the progress that their GCSE grades indicate they should when compared to similar students nationally.'

Inspectors found LAE students who studied AS economics, French and Eng Lit made better progress than students nationally but those studying AS-level chemistry, further mathematics and religious studies made less progress than students nationally.

And inspectors were concerned about high turnover of staff.

That's not to say LAE students haven't done well but LAE was specifically set up to send pupils to Russell Group unis and is highly selective. It chooses only those pupils with high academic results and who want to go to uni. So it's hardly surprising if its A level results are better than those of other sixth forms which are open to students with lower grades and which offer vocational exams. But a press release headed 'Highly selective sixth form offering only A levels beats more inclusive sixth forms' wouldn't have the same impact.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 15:21


Those Ofsted inspectors will be wiping the egg off their faces this morning! I'm assuming those carping criticisms you cite related to this same cohort at LAE that has turned out the best set of results by a sixth form college ever! Anfd have done it from a standing start with their very first cohort.

So much for Ofsted's judgment. And so much for A/S Levels as a progress measure.

Many sixth forms are selective to some extent these days these days, but you are right to point out that this gives LAE a relative advantage over those with a comprehensive intake. But the point you ignore is that the existence of LAE has meant that many more Newham kids are going to Oxbridge and RG than in the past.

I think you are being a little niggardly with your appreciation here. LAE has, after all, done more than fourteen times as well as the borough average and three, coming on four times as well as the national average. That's got to be a serious achievement in anybody's book.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 15:44

Barry - we cannot yet say that LAE's results are the 'best ever' because we don't know how other similar sixth forms have done in 2014. Not all sixth forms send press releases to national papers. For example, Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge published a low-key announcement on their website for their 1000 pupils:

'A level pass rate at grades A* to C: 92.5%
A level pass rate at grades A* to E: 99.6%
Linda Sinclair (College Principal) said, "We are delighted. These outstanding A level results, half of which are grades A* or A, together with our strongest AS level results for many years, properly reflect and reward the dedication and talents of our students, staff and partner school colleagues.'

We don't know if the pupils at LAE would have gone to Russell Group unis if they'd have entered other sixth forms. The chances are they would have done given their ambition.

As I said, if you pick pupils with very high academic qualifications and who are committed to going to a Russell Group uni, then, surprise, surprise, you will turn out students with good A levels who go to a Russell Group uni. I'm pleased for the pupils concerned - good luck to them - but sending a press release to national newspapers, especially when it reveals ignorance about GNVQs, is rather too much like marketing spin.

I prefer Hills Road's more dignified approach.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 16:20

We don't need to know the results of other schools to say 'best ever' because we're talking about exceeding previous years' records not comparing performance this year.
And these figures aren't confined to the Russell Group students.

As for Hills Road - The national average A*-E pass rate has been at or above 98% for some years, but this is indeed comfortably surpassed. The A*-C is terrific. But best of all is the one you don't mention - the A*/A, which is better than LAE's!

But then Hill's Road is selective too, requiring a baseline average of grade B across 8 X GCSEs and Grade A in the subject for Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

I can find no mention of GNVQs in the LAE press release, displaying ignorance or not.

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 20:04

Barry, this post is about the combination of the press release and the quotes given to the Guardian. Sorry if that isn't clear. The GNVQ reference and the suggestion (basicly a fib) that other Newham sixth forms don't provide Maths, Biology or History are in the quote given by the Head to the Guardian.

Sadly a lot of sixth forms are becoming selective. But there is still a big difference between requiring 5 Bs and 5 As on entry.

The real judge is a sixth form's ALPs score, the measure of how much value it adds, but these are not made public unless the sixth form wishes to do so. Stoke Newington School, the Hackney comprehensive that I chair, does not require 5 Bs for entry. But its ALPs measure of value added puts it in the top 2% of sixth forms in the country over the last three years (to 2013).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 06:55

Sorry, Barry, the head's remarks about GNVQ were quoted in the Guardian, not the press release. I should have written, '...but sending a press release to national newspapers, especially when accompanied by a quote showing ignorance about GNVQs, is rather too much like marketing spin.'

I'm aware that Hills Road is selective. That was the point. I was comparing LAE with a similarly selective sixth-form college (albeit one with far more pupils). As expected, results are similar. And, as expected, Hills Road achieves better results than sixth-forms which are less selective.

'John Smith''s picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 15:24

An interesting and useful piece - thanks.

I have a child entering his second year of sixth form at LAE next month (so the cohort behind the one being mentioned) but the minimum entry requirement for my child was 5 Bs, not 5As etc.

I understand that has since increased but it also means that the comparison by Henry Stewart including "At LAE, 160+ students arrived with 5 As or A*s at GCSE" is not valid if the requirement for those a year above my child was Bs not As (and I think it was).

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 21/08/2014 - 13:11

John - thanks. The minimum entry requirements for September 2014 are at least 5 A or A* grades overall with at least a B in Maths and English.

The minimum requirements for entry last September were, as you say, lower.

'the applicant achieving at least five B or higher GCSE grades, including Mathematics
and English Language'. However, it made it clear the applicants should strive to get A grades or better because 'leading universities' expected this standard.

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