The national papers last week were full of praise for Harris Westminster Sixth Form, described by The Times as the ‘school for poorest pupils’. Education secretary Damian Hinds was among many who praised the school.
37 of its students, twelve of them eligible for free school meals, had received Oxbridge offers.
This is great news for the students concerned. But was the sixth form wholly responsible?
School Performance Tables released today showed that progress made by Harris Westminster Sixth Form students in A levels in 2018 was ‘below average’. This means the students performed less well in A levels than might be expected given their GCSE performance.
That’s not to say the pupils didn’t do well. The average A level grade in 2018 was B – the same average grade achieved at another Westminster school, The St Marylebone CofE, and the highest average A level grade in Westminster. But progress at St Marylebone was ‘average’ – meaning the pupils achieved what was expected based on GCSE performance. The ‘below average’ progress at Harris Westminster suggests the average A level grade could, indeed should, have been higher.
Singling out individual schools for special praise can be counter-productive. It annoys schools where progress is as good as or higher than at the applauded school. It risks back-firing if the celebrated school is found to have, say, gamed the system. Schools minister Nick Gibb, for example, recently complimented Harris Primary Philip Lane (former Downhills) seemingly unaware its SATs results had been annulled. And former education secretary Michael Gove regularly used Cuckoo Hall, Enfield, and Durand, Lambeth, as examples for other schools to follow. Both have since been judged inadequate.
Praising schools for one achievement – in this case the number of Oxbridge offers – also risks elevating this achievement above others. This devalues schools educating pupils who aren’t university bound never mind Oxbridge. The government says it wants to raise the profile of vocational education, apprenticeships and T levels. Glorifying schools for the number of pupils heading towards Oxbridge isn’t the way to do it.