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A-level success among independent schools is down to highly qualified teachers

Julie Robinson, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, examines why the sector performs so well

Posted on: 24 Aug 2015
Posted by: Julie Robinson

Categories: Exams

Independent schools have achieved impressive A level results this year with 50% graded A* and A, against a national average of 25.9%.

One in fourteen independent school candidates achieved three or more A* grades and 19% of entries have achieved one A* grade, against 8% nationally.

Independent schools do well because they teach the traditional facilitating subjects that Russell Group universities require, including modern foreign languages, maths, further maths, physics, chemistry and biology as well as history and geography. There is a trend towards more pupils taking facilitating subjects in the state sector, with over 51% of all pupils now taking them, but this is not yet enough if all students are to be given a fair chance of access to the best universities.

Some traditional subjects, particularly modern foreign languages, are in decline in this country, with French and German suffering reduced candidate numbers. Yet in independent schools, languages continue to be popular. Last year, in French, pupils from independent schools formed 28% of the entries at A level, but were awarded 48% of the A* grades. This is important: without these pupils many university languages departments would not survive.

Independent schools are also particularly good at encouraging girls to take science, subjects that are less popular with girls nationally. Only 21% of the 36,000 candidates who took physics A level this year were girls and the figure is even worse in computing, where girls accounted for just 8% of entries. There are many examples of girls in our schools going on to study engineering, computing and other sciences at university after achieving high grades at A level. For example at Headington School, in Oxford, 61% of pupils took maths at A level or IB this year and more than 80% continue studying at least one STEM subject.

How do we do it? Independent schools employ teachers who are usually highly qualified specialists in their subject and who can impart enthusiasm and love of learning to pupils. Schools promote a culture of high expectation and high achievement which supports the academic aspirations of students. Students are taught to organise their study time, apply themselves with discipline and cope with the stress of examinations.

At the same time, schools offer a wide range of co-curricular activities, educating pupils as whole people across a broad range of skills and experiences and developing self-confidence and strong self-esteem which is so important when they get out into the real world of work and life.

Independent schools can also exercise freedom to choose the best qualifications and exams that they judge are right for their pupils. It is interesting to note that there has been an 11% rise this year in the numbers of pupils taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), while nationally the numbers have increased only marginally.

The EPQ is an independent piece of work, usually an essay of about 5,000 words, on a topic of the student’s choice. It provides evidence of commitment, independent thought and organisational skills in independent research and extended writing. While it is not required by universities, it demonstrates interest in a subject area and, more importantly, will considerably develop and extend the student in preparation for his or her transfer to university studies. Independent schools can also choose alternatives to A levels, if they consider that best for their pupils. There were rises this year in the number of pupils taking the IB, which offers breadth of study into the sixth form, and the Pre U, which offers a demanding two year linear course. It is likely that during the period of transition - while the new reformed A levels are introduced, starting this September, and the AS is decoupled - that some schools will continue to offer a mix of qualifications, selected subject by subject.

Also of note is the high proportion of pupils at independent schools in the North who have also achieved the A* grade. This bucks a national trend described by JCQ last week whereby students in the North performed significantly worse in the top grades than those in the South East. There are many examples of independent schools in the North, some in areas of disadvantage, that continue to achieve at the highest level, as some of our top performing schools in Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester demonstrate. At Merchant Taylors’ Girls’ School in Crosby, for example, which has a wide catchment area, 90% of language entries achieved 90% A* and A grades. At Manchester High School for Girls where 10% of pupils have bursaries and 5% pay no fees at all, six girls this year are taking up Oxbridge places.

Our schools are keen to share this expertise and many, such as King’s College School, Wimbledon or the City of York Partnership have shared revision classes and university preparation advice with local state school students to support their university chances too.

While independent schools continue to achieve excellent results and are keen to share those standards with neighbouring state schools, all A Level students achieving good grades should be proud of the results of their hard work and application.

First published in the TES 21 August 2015.


About Julie Robinson

General Secretary at ISC