Why independent schools achieve the top grades at A level

Posted on: 25 Aug 2015
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon, Chairman, Independent Schools Council and former Head of Harrow comments in the Telegraph.

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

One in fourteen independent school candidates achieved three or more A* grades. The great majority of our students have gained places at good universities on the back of these results.
Thanks to Ofqual, A level results now show a good deal of stability from one year to the next. Grade inflation during the Blair/Brown years produced widespread cynicism and certainly devalued the A level currency. It was one of the factors which drove independent schools to alternatives to A level, the excellent International Baccalaureate (now taken by 5% of our students) and Pre-U (taken by 4%).

Numbers taking the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) in independent schools continue to rise by 11%, with over 270 schools offering it. This is an independent piece of research which helps demonstrate to universities that pupils have the skills they require - self-motivation, research skills, the ability to tackle extended writing. If pupils are keen to study a university degree subject not taken at A level, such as Medicine or Architecture, the Extended Project is a formidable demonstration of enthusiasm for their choice.

The numbers taking Maths A level continue to grow but the question is - will this reverse when the reformed A level comes in and the AS is decoupled? A good number of those taking Maths A level will have been helped along the way by their experience of the AS. It may well be that mathematics departments will be keen to make students continue to take the reformed AS in a way that will be less true of, for example, English Literature. Much will depend on experience with the reformed maths GCSE, which kicks off next month.

Modern languages remain relatively popular in independent schools. Last year 42% of the A grades nationally in German (for example) were awarded to pupils from independent schools, although they formed just 23% of the entries nationally. In the state sector there has been continued decline in the numbers taking French and German and, despite an increase in Spanish, overall the uptake of modern languages is dire. Nothing less than a national campaign can reverse the situation. As things stand, independent schools are propping up the learning of both modern and classical languages in Britain.

Sciences remain popular in independent schools with both boys and girls - one in five of those taking Physics A level in England are in our schools and many of those are girls. It is dreadful that nationally only 21% of the 36,000 candidates who took Physics A level this year were girls (and only 8% of those taking Computing). Girls are opting to do Psychology instead - they made up 76% of the 57,000 candidates in the country as a whole.

So why are independent schools so successful?

They are strong at teaching 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. Teachers are often highly qualified specialists in their subject, who can impart their enthusiasm and love of learning to pupils.

Schools also expect hard work and commitment from pupils and have high aspirations for them. Nor do they just focus on grades and exams. They also offer a wide and varied co-curricular life of sport, CCF, debating, music and drama and many other activities. They have long focused on building character and skills such as teamwork and leadership. They foster good self-esteem and self-confidence.

In short they offer an excellent education in every way and with yet another year of excellent A level results, prepare pupils well to go onto further success at university.

First published in the Telegraph 22 August 2015.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.