The Success Story from Newham

Henry Stewart's picture
One highlight of today's A level results was the great results from a sixth form college in Newham. Based in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, over 60 of its students are set to go to Russell Group universities. It is a college that succeeds in getting more disadvantaged students into higher education than any other sixth form provider in the country.

No, I am not referring to LAE (the London Academy of Excellence) whose press release was reproduced without question by newspapers such as the Guardian. LAE boasted that 40% of its sixth formers secured AAB in traditional subjects. But,as the article notes, LAE is highly selective, requiring 5 A* or A grades at GCSE to gain admission.

"School that selects only the most academic students achieves above average results" would hardly be a convincing headline. Indeed DfE statistics reveal that on average at selective schools 40% of students achieve AAB at A level (or 32.4% where at least two are in "facilitating subjects").

Those students should be congratulated on their success, as should the staff who supported them. But the impression that LAE likes to give that it is giving chances where none existed before is misleading. To support this argument, they like to quote outdated figures. For instance the LAE press release today states that in 2011 only 39 Newham sixth formers secured places at Russell Group universities. But they must know that in 2013 no less than 60 achieved Russell Group places from just one other local provider, Newvic SIxth Form College.

It was Newvic that I was referring to in the first paragraph. Where LAE was acclaimed in the Times for the fact that 100 of their students had Russell Group offers, Newvic this year received 137 Russell Group offers - but without the press coverage lauded on this free school.

The two colleges are very different. Newvic is genuinely inclusive and comprehensive and accepts virtually all the young eople who apply to study there. It seeks to fully serve the local community and successfully provides a mix of academic and vocational qualifications.

The trend towards selection in sixth forms, even in comprehensive schools, is disturbing and Newvic shows that there is an alternative. It is one of many many sixth form providers across the country that shows it is possible to successfully provide great education and meet the needs of the full range of students.

For more information: do check out the great blog from Newvic's Principal, Eddie Playfair.

Note: Corrections have been made to this post, following feedback from NewVIc. The 137 Russell Group offers was originally ascribed to last year, but is the figure for this year. The number of NewVIc students accepted last year to Russell Group universities was originally listed as 68.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 07:04

Henry - your post highlights an increasing problem of the media churning press releases from individual schools which inevitably portray their schools in a good light often at the expense of surrounding schools. In the case of London Academy of Excellence the Guardian quote actually showed ignorance. Newham pupils wanting to study academic A levels were, according to LAE,

"....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."

But GNVQs (introduced in 1992) were phased out between 2005 and 2007.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 07:59

A direct comparison of Ofsted reports between Newham Sixth Form College and London Academy of Excellence isn't possible because inspection criteria have changed. However, the College Inspection Report for Newham in 2009 found it was Good. The Learning and Skills Inspection Report for LAE in 2014 judged LAE to be Good.

Inspectors found Newham had entry rates that were lower than for most other providers. LAE, of course, is highly-selective. Newham's response to meeting the needs of all its learners was 'outstanding', inspectors said. LAE also meets the needs of its students which inspectors recognised were 'ambitious, academically able and keen to progress to university'.

It appears, then, that much of LAE's success rests on its recruiting pupils who wish to go to university and have high academic credentials. Ofsted recognised this but noted the help offered to pupils wanting to following vocational routes was underdeveloped. Inspectors also noted a high turnover of staff at LAE which led to 'inconsistency'. And inspectors found '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'.

That didn't appear in the press release.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 08:05

Oddly, Ofsted commented on the fact that LAE's 'successes' were 'publicised locally and nationally'. This raises the question about how far a school's publicity machine impacts on Ofsted judgements. It should, of course, have no effect. If it does, that will encourage schools to divert money which should be spent on education to marketing and the development of a 'brand'.

OECD found when schools are in competition with each other, ie when market forces were introduced into school systems, then money is diverted to non-educational spending such as promotion (see faq above 'Do market forces in education increase achievement and efficiency?').

Spin, it appears, takes money from substance.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 11:41

Henry is right to applaud and defend excellent comprehensive provision in sixth forms. Janet makes some important additional and supporting points. All I can add is a historical perspective.

I took my A levels in the sixth form of a Birmingham selective school in 1965. I was in the Upper Sixth Sciences stream. Most of my fellow students applied to NUJMB (Northern University Joint Matriculation Board) universities,which included Birmingham and other now Russell Group institutions. The standard offer for science/engineering courses (eg, Physics, Mechanical Engineering etc) was CCC. We have to ask ourselves why such universities now want at least AAB. There was certainly no lack of competition back in 1966. There were far fewer universities, no fees payable and relatively generous LA universal maintenance grants. As I argue on other threads, Gove was right about grade inflation at GCSE and A Level and his measures to bring about stability should be applauded.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 12:25

Roger, it is wrong to assume that the greatly increased number of students achieving high grades is all down to "inflation". Where is the evidence that this is true?

When in the mid 1980s Sir Keith Joseph removed the quota system, in which the percentage of entrants achieving each grade was fixed, with 15% getting an A and 32% failing, he did so because he believed that the greatly increased number of entrants for A-level must mean that an A grade in 1985 achieved by the best 25,000 students could not be as good as an A grade in 1955 achieved by the best 5,000 students. He instructed the exam boards to set objective standards for each grade and not give high grades to students just because they were in a certain percentile.

Are all the exam boards part of a conspiracy to inflate grades? I don't think so.

At the same time as the A-level grades have improved the number of students achieving firsts and upper seconds at university has greatly increased. Are all the universities deliberately inflating their results? Why would they do this?

In any case, even if there has been some grade inflation, what harm has it caused? Even if a CCC in 1965 represented the same standard as AAB now, those who took their exams fifty years ago are not being disadvantaged. It is not like financial inflation where savings are eroded; those of us who took our exams years ago were judged by the standards of the day against other students under the same system.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 14:15

Patrick - This is a well rehearsed debate on both sides. I don't have any doubt about massive and seriously distorting and damaging grade inflation at GCSE, most which in my view is a consequence of the marketisation of the education system in last 20 years.

I set out my argument here.

Anecdotally, the GCE maths syllabus for the exam I took in 1963 required use and understanding of calculus in relation to distance/time and speed/time travel graphs and the calculation of maxima and minima of quadratic functions.

As a secondary science teacher from 1971 to 2003 I have no doubt about the year-on-year grade inflation and the alteration of the nature of assessments, exam papers, marking schemes and grade thresholds to increase 'accessibility'.

Does it matter? Yes, because government education policies since the 1988 Education Act, have either been disastrous or miraculous in their effect. We have either suffered education-destroying grade inflation, or the success of league tables and market driven competition between schools in transforming the quality of teaching and so enabling the cognitive ability level at which a C grade in maths becomes accessible to drop from the 80th to well below the 40th percentile.

I believe that marketisation has significantly and seriously depressed real education standards, the mechanism being the market-driven substitution of behaviourist teaching methods for the slow, deep learning that results from developmental approaches (Piaget,Vygotsky etc).

This is a big subject.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 18:37

Roger it is too big a subject to do justice to in these comment boxes. You say that in the past a C in Maths was the 80th percentile and now it is below the 40th, and that this is disastrous. What in your opinion should the figure be? If we had a perfect educational system what percentage of pupils getting their GCSE results next week would have reached grade C?

In a nutshell my problem is Michael Gove, who at the same time as condemning schools that do not get 50% of their pupils to achieve 5 or more A*-C at GCSE including English and Maths, and saying that any pupil who does not reach that level has no chance of a decent life; he was also arguing, like you, that the exams are too easy because in the past only the top 20% passed them and now more than three times as many do.

What do Michael Gove and Roger want? Do they want 100% of pupils to pass 5 or more GCSEs? Or do they want to go back to the 1960s when less than 15% left school with five O-level passes?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 20:49

Patrick - The grade scale runs from A*-G (for now). As I argue in my posts that large range in attainment grades is needed to reflect the corresponding true large range of ability as revealed by Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) scores - the bell curve normal distribution.

In my headship school we used to list all the Y11 GCSE candidates’ exam results in order of their Y7 CATs scores leaving out the names. The power of the CATs as predictor is obvious from this exercise. You find that it is easy to spot approximate CATs thresholds that relate to C+ and other grade performance in each subject. I am not saying that this process will produce the same CATs thresholds in all schools because some schools and teachers are more effective than others. Of course pupils have to take CATs in Y6 or Y7 for this to be possible.

CATs are so much more useful than SATs, which they should replace. They also incentivise and facilitate cognitively developmental teaching and learning strategies. SATs do the opposite.

Mapping GCSE performance against intake CATs scores reveals the vast range of cognitive ability in a genuinely all-ability school, together with what SHOULD be the corresponding large range of exam results. I strongly believe that the application of CASE (Shayer and Adey), Piaget/Vygotsky type developmental approached to teaching and learning can significantly raise both attainment in GCSE exams AND cognitive ability measured by CATs taken in later years. However, so long as all pupils across the full CATs range get their fair share of attention AS THEY ARE ENTITLED TO such improved teaching will NOT reduce the RANGE of performance.

It is more likely to increase it. Human variation is a fact of life, we need to celebrate it, not seek to compress it. How close would Einstein have been to his peers at age 18 compared to age 11? This is why the KS2 Level 4 and CGSE Grade C ‘hurdle’ approach needed to drive league tables is so educationally damaging.

We need an exam system with at least the full current grade range G to A* to recognise this and to celebrate cognitive growth and attainment at every level. On such a system C could return to its former university matriculation status. Other career benchmarks might be E (where C is now) and G (indicating significant functional ability of great value compared to its absence).

The Gove grade reforms go part way in the right direction. The flaw is in assuming that higher level performance can be taught rather than developed. See Francis Gilbert's post 'What really matters'.

This addresses the issue of why pupils cannot be ‘taught’ to handle abstractions. This is fundamentally at the core of Piaget’s developmentalism.

If a pupil does not 'get' something, it is likely to be because his/her cognitive software is insufficiently sophisticated to cope. Going over it over and over again will not help. Neither will raising the stakes for the pupil or the teacher.

The acquisition of abstract strategies is developmental, takes time and is therefore slow and reflective rather than high pressured and incentive driven, and crucially is general in its application.

You ask what proportion of pupils should get C grades at GCSE? It should not be an important question. That is the flaw in Gove's approach. The issue should be whether all pupils are getting results that reflect the cognitive growth that results from developmental teaching and the challenge is to develop pedagogy to constantly improve the effectiveness of such approaches.

Marketisation and league tables undermine such deep learning.

FJM's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 20:34

As Roger has said, we have been through all this before, but he is right about grade inflation. A study by Durham showed that what would have been awarded a grade C in maths about 15-20 years ago would now get A. You can find the info if you like on the internet, it's all there. In 1982, with many fewer taking A-levels, and a brighter group of such candidates as well, not even 1 in 8 managed one A; in 2010, 1 in 8 managed at least three at grade A. Top universities, such as UCL and IC, gave offers consisting entirely of grades B & C, now you'd be lucky to get an offer of AAA. Need I go on?

Ingenue Governor's picture
Fri, 15/08/2014 - 21:42

I agree......." a friend of mine" attended a Midlands selective girls high school and was the top scoring girl with 3 grade A a-levels in 1984 . The next most successful girl was ABB...The top 5 universities required 3 B's at A-level for entry. At Leeds University boys had to get 3 C's for Engineering however girls had only to get 3 D's for the same course .

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 07:10

This is anecdotal evidence, I know, but I was led to believe when choosing O level options in the early 1960s that you could get into university with 2 A levels (grades weren't mentioned) and an O level in Latin.

I took Latin just in case (and dropped out) but despite being in the top 'grammar' stream no girl as far as I know was pushed towards university. When we had our one and only careers interviews the adviser gave many of us (including me) the same advice to become a 'buyer' at a large department store.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 09:01

Janet - My understanding was that minimum entry requirements were defined by 'matriculation'. If my memory serves me right then matriculation required two A Level passes (eg EE), with GSE C grades in English, maths and a foreign language. I have a feeling that a C grade in science was also needed plus a C in one other subject.

What is certain is that any 18 year-old with such qualifications at this point in time will be inundated with offers from hundreds of universities that didn't exist in the 1960s but none from the Russell Group.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/08/2014 - 09:41

I was waiting for a response to my argument, arguing that schools are justified in cramming pupils for 5ACEM because of the life changing opportunities such qualifications offer the school leaver. However in the absence of it appearing here is my reply.

It is B*******.

Pupils are fed dodgy curriculum and crammed in English and maths not for the benefit of pupils but for the pay and career enhancing prospects of the head and the SLT, combined with the profiteering potential of the Academy chain/edubusiness involved with the school.

5ACEM is now a devalued and virtually worthless qualification. This is because of the huge disparities in the ways it can be achieved. 5ACEM achieved at one of the DfE and media's outstandingly improved schools could well involve multiple entries, partial teaching of the syllabus in E and M combined with a single 4 X GCSE counting BTEC that combines zero educational value with zero vocational qualification credibility in the world of work. This is a multiple whammy for school leavers and employers. The school leaver retains very little understanding of maths and gains no love of literature and employers have no idea what they are getting.

Compare this with another school leaver with 5ACEM from a 'coasting' school uninterested in league table competition, where maths has been well taught in a developmental manner throughout KS3 and KS4, the entire syllabus has been covered and the mathematically expert teacher was able to develop a degree of understanding. Also where English was taught alongside English Literature by an enthusiastic and skilled teacher with a love of the subject. The other C grades were Double Award science, again taught developmentally for understanding, History and French. Such a young person would also most likely have a C grade in English Literature as well.

There is no comparison is there?

But what about 5ACEM as an essential post 16 course passport? B******* again. In this bums on seats world of FE no sixth form or FE College is going to turn down a well motivated and well educated young person. Retakes are always offered or in many cases not even required. It is a fact that there is no minimum qualification for entry to 16+ NHS Trust cadet courses eventually leading to graduate qualifications in nursing or midwifery, with no university course fees and with paid on the job employment alongside. (Actually as an NHS Trust governor I worry about this).

If you are fortunate enough to obtain the services of a Polish plumber you may be astonished at his/her general level of education as well job skills. This is even more true in my experience in Germany. On the Mercedes Benz production line in Stuttgart, which I have visited, you would not be surprised to find workers reading Goethe or discussing cultural or political matters at a high level in the lunch break. OK, I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much.

The English education system dumbs down, alienates, frustrates, fails to satisfy employers and costs the taxpayer more and more. It is all the fault of the culture of the 1988 Education Act and marketisation.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 17/08/2014 - 13:35

I am concerned about sidetracking Henry's important post. My negative comments do not apply to all schools and to return to the title of this thread it is right for Henry to point out that schools can still be successful by doing the right thing.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 14:46

Just when I stick my neck out to support the Labour opposition on other threads, up pops Tristram to churn out some populist nonsense on Goves's A Level reforms. Yes the GCSE and A level reforms will result in lower grades and some unhappy students, teachers and especially heads.

But it is right that this should happen and we need more not less of it.

The last thing a cognitively challenging two year course requiring developmental deep learning needs is an unnecessary high stakes exam half way through. This results in the loss of developmental slow teaching and learning time by replacing it with months of pre-exam revision and cramming.

The best role for AS courses is a two-year, half an A Level, as part of a strategy to widen the academic post-16 curriculum. For an example, Double maths, physics, and AS chemistry or biology would be attractive to many physical scientists. Other interesting combinations that straddle the arts/sciences would also be possible.

Age-related Piagetian cognitive development should not be ignored. I am July born. I am sure my cognitive as well as physical development lagged behind my peers throughout school. A two year A level course, planned well can leave the most cognitively demanding parts of the syllabus until later without wasting essential development time and studies covering all the examined content of an AS syllabus.

However I accept that I haven't taught A Level for a very long time (my headship school was 11-16) so I would be interested in the views of A Level teachers.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 18:24

The last thing a cognitively challenging two year course requiring developmental deep learning needs is an unnecessary high stakes exam half way through.

I totally agree.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 16:39

Roger, universities teach course that are even more cognitively challenging than A-levels, but they set high-stakes exams on these courses every year, and sometimes twice a year. They also use a lot of coursework and/or dissertations which count towards their students' final grades. Tristram Hunt is right to criticise Gove's A-level changes - and he is not alone in this, as far as I can tell the universities and the public schools agree with him.

I still have not had an answer as to what is wrong with slow but steady grade inflation (if it exists)? Who suffers if CCC in 1965 is equivalent to AAB now? What harm has been done? I can understand problems are caused by to much financial inflation, but I do not see that there is any reason at all to worry about a little grade inflation every year.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 16:46

Any chance of an EDIT button so that we can correct typos please?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 17:32

Patrick - There is a huge difference between continuous assessment in the form of coursework and/or exam papers and GCSE/ AS/A levels exams the results of which are aggregated and used to judge the school/college and its head. The difference is that mid course assessment on university degree courses may be high stakes for the student but not all for the institution. University lecturers do not change their teaching methods in preparation for the mid course assessment.

The inflation in English exam grades is disastrous because it has made it impossible to judge educational standards and has enabled successive government propaganda to pass of corroded and eroded educational standards as success for marketisation, so feeding the same propaganda machine that is constantly advocating and supporting further privatisation.

Education policies since the 1988 Education Act, have either been disastrous or miraculous in their effect. We have either suffered education-destroying grade inflation, or the success of league tables and market driven competition between schools in transforming the quality of teaching. You appear to accept the latter.

I do not.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 18/08/2014 - 20:00

'pass off' even - I agree about a typo button - I am always making them.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 08:25


'I still have not had an answer as to what is wrong with slow but steady grade inflation (if it exists)? Who suffers if CCC in 1965 is equivalent to AAB now? What harm has been done?

But what is AAA in 1965 equal to now, if CCC is now equal to AAB? A clear sign something is wrong is when new A* grades have to invented. It looks like the answer is A**, A**, A*.

Perhaps it is even more serious at the other end of the scale. In 1965 the lowest grade that could be awarded to an A level candidate was not E but O, equivalent to a GCE 'C' grade. What would an A Level grade of 'O' in 1965 be worth now? The previous logic suggests it would be A Level grade D. Many experienced present maths and science teachers would say that that felt right.

Are you comfortable with that?

The problem is caused by criterion referencing. This was all the rage in the 1980s when it was first advocated. It is fine for vocational training, which is about specific, clearly defined vocational capability. Unlike academic education outcomes, vocational qualifications like BTEC have very low (zero even) correlation with cognitive ability and therefore CATs scores. This is a good thing. No-one wants to feel that one's safety as a train passenger depends on the IQ of the driver. This does not scale up to airline pilots however, as the remarkable novel situation decision making ability of the Hudson River ditching pilot shows. I would always want my pilot to be in top reaches of the IQ scale as well as being well trained. This is achieved through the academic qualification threshold that has to be met by airline pilots.

School exam grades should be percentile based. This does not guarantee steady standards. These would have to be checked independently by sampling methods. If school and teachers become more effective over time in such a system then the value of grades increases. So what? No harm done there. Certainly no new grades need inventing.

If the converse happens then at least the system can recognise it through parallel sampling based testing. Something can then be done.

The present situation completely lacks statistical validity and is hopeless in practice because it is so hard to know what is going on and the arguments are polarised by the self interest of those that make their living in the system.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.