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.