11/09/2017 08:18 BST | Updated 11/09/2017 08:18 BST

When State Schools Lead, Independents Follow

Early last week, St Olave's in Orpington, one of the UK's leading grammar schools, made the news after it told a handful of its Sixth Form students that they could not return for their final A-Level year since they did not secure high enough grades in their exams. This move has been dismissed as draconian, no less by the parents of affected students.

However, despite this ongoing imbroglio, the summer has not been entirely dissatisfactory for the school. Habitually appearing among the highest achieving schools in league tables, it celebrated a fine crop of both GCSE and A-Level results. Of particular interest were the GCSE grades, 90% of which were graded at A*/A, corresponding to grades 7/8/9 in the new grading system, first used this year.

Despite the uncertainty which surrounded its introduction, the new system appears, in some cases, to have put state schools on a good footing, with a number of independent schools now considering whether to enter their pupils with exam boards that use it. Although there have been, and will continue to be, challenges in the transition, the risks have brought at least one important dividend in defying the conventional wisdom that 'best practice' is principally to be found among the independents. The lesson that can be taken from this is that where the state school system leads and succeeds, the independents follow.

Quite simply, rather than being graded alphabetically, from A* to G, exams will be differentiated numerically, with nine being the highest and one the lowest. The new classification will be phased in, with only English language, English literature and maths affected this year. Other subjects will follow over the next two summer exam seasons, such that in 2019, all GCSEs will be graded in this way.


Private schools: an unnecessary price when state schools are leading the field? Source:

Of course, the new GCSEs represent a more substantive shift than simply the way they are graded. They are more rigorous, being seen by some educationalists as a return to an old standard, the O-Level qualification last in use in the 1980s. They are linear, with exams being sat after two years of study, as opposed to modular exams over the same, or in some cases longer, period of time. Although the new grading system has some equivalence to the A*-G scale—a 4, for example, corresponds to a "standard" grade C pass, a 5 a "strong" C—it allows for more differentiation of the highest achievers, since 7, 8 and 9 broadly replacing the A* and the A with a grade 9 being awarded to a select few of exceptional performance.

This year, many independent schools were left largely unaffected by this change, opting as they do for the International GCSE (iGCSE). Sat by students around the world, with slight differences between each country, they are thought to be more rigorous and to place British students on par with their peer group across continents. Now, however, some of Britain's leading independent schools are considering whether to make the transition to the new GCSEs, fearing that universities may favour students with a string of grade 9s over those with a similar number of A*s.

In response to this desire for change among fee-paying schools, Edexcel, one of the country's leading exam boards, is transitioning to the numerical grading system in their English and Maths iGCSEs. John Maguire, deputy head at Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, told The Daily Telegraph that many heads had pressured the exam boards to mirror the state sector's system.

This news, that the qualification favoured and used by state schools will serve as the 'new gold standard' for their private school competitors, will certainly be welcomed by advocates of state schools.

To some, however, this story simply confirms a long-running trend. It is well known, for instance, that private schools often use their local state competitors as a benchmark, often raising their fees to modernise their facilities or give their staff an increase in their salaries to keep in line with them. That private schools will, then, switch to the new GCSEs, because they appear, even so soon after their introduction, to help them keep pace with state schools should not seem so much of a surprise. Indeed, this summer, figures also revealed that the attainment gap between state and private schools at the A-Level stage was narrowing.

If this trend continues, whereby independent schools adopt elements of best practice from state schools, decisions, such as the one taken by St Olave's to eject certain pupils for not achieving the required set of high grades, may no longer be necessary. This practice, which according to testimonies gathered from parents by the Guardian, is widespread nationwide, after all is most common among state schools ever keen to maintain their high rankings in league tables.

This Keeping up with the Joneses-esque tale reveals a surreal irony. For while state schools often look to their private sector competitors for ideas and inspiration, the latter are increasingly looking towards the former. If anything, this new development should prompt state schools, particularly high-achieving ones, to take a moment and look within. For they seemed to have already occasioned upon the winning formula; after all, it is there where their independent school competitors are looking too. Naturally, given the diversity of circumstances and conditions between state schools, these strides may not necessarily be achievable across the board overnight. But it can certainly be a start, with the more successful state schools sharing ideas and methods with others in the state sector, as private schools such as Wellington College have been doing, even taking on the running of local academies.

Although the media frenzy played a part, it is likely this process might be beginning: by the end of last week, St Olave's confirmed that it would be readmitting the affected students so they could continue their studies. In coming to their decision, the headteacher and the school's governors did not have to look very far, in fact no further than the school motto, whose words appear in the first line of the school's song: "Olave (Olaf) to right the wrong!" Here's to hoping they can stay true to their own dictum more often.