Notes on...

The lessons of exam results season (and what to do about them)

Results matter only for where they lead

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

Every year without fail, as the trees start thinking about losing their leaves, the papers are full of the same photographs and the same stories. The pictures are of groups of teenagers grinning triumphantly — hugging one another or throwing their exam results in the air in joy.

What we have just experienced is exam results week; or, to be precise, results fortnight: first A-levels and then, one week later, GCSEs. GCSEs lead to A-levels, A-levels to university (and yet more exams) — and then at the end of it all? Well, that’s the next obstacle. But for parents, as well as children, the endless tests can be incredibly confusing.


A colleague recently told me about her son, who is due to start school in September. What could she do to help him prepare, she asked his new form teacher. ‘Whatever you do,’ the teacher replied, ‘don’t even think about starting to teach him phonics.’ Why? Because teaching him the ‘wrong’ way might set him back — or so his teacher believed. All this confusion over something that parents might think of as a relatively simple academic achievement — that is, learning to read and write — is perhaps emblematic of so many parents’ bemusement over the British education system.

The photographs of celebrating students were just part of the exam results story. The other part was the headlines alongside these images. One of the most surprising was a story revealing that the top 500 British state schools outperform the top 500 independent schools in the country at A-level. This, of course, will only cause more confusion for parents. After all that time saving up for school fees, could it be that it is a waste of money sending your child to an independent senior school? Maybe the cash would be better spent on getting your child into a good state school — and spending the remainder on something else that might help provide a ‘fully rounded’ education? Euphonium lessons, trips to Spain, Gold Duke of Edinburgh; that sort of thing.

And state versus private isn’t the only decision to be made. There’s an almost endless list of further choices: co-education or single-sex? Boarding in the countryside or a nice urban day school? Or what about a free school? The thing is, there’s no fix-all solution for every child. Some will thrive in a private boarding environment, some in the state sector; some need a change of scenery ever few years, while others would much rather stay in the same environment, with the same classmates, from three to 18. Perhaps the best thing to do is to ignore all the hype over exam results, and be willing to adapt to changes as your offspring grows up. Every child is different, after all.

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  • King Zog

    Thank God I don’t have (and don’t want) children.

  • Barnaby Lenon

    You repeat the claim of the story that the top 500 state schools are better than the top 500 independent schools.

    Going back to original data (schools ranked by
    total points per candidate) shows that 30 out of the top 50 schools are state
    schools. But equally 20 out of the top
    50 are independent schools so why does the graph suggest that all state schools
    are better than all independent schools?

    Because state and independent schools are ranked separately and the top few state schools have very high point scores, this has the effect pulling the red line up not just at the start but throughout the range. So the state
    school ranked twentieth (Blue Coat) has the same points score as the
    independent school (Hampton) ranked 9th, but on the graph the
    independent school appears well below the state school. It is graphing madness.

    It is true that the best
    state schools get more total A-level points per candidate than some
    of the best-known independent schools.
    So, for example, Liverpool College (a state school) achieved 1120 points
    per A-level pupil (where an A* grade is 300, A is 270, a B is 240, a C is 210,
    a D is 180 and an E is 150). Eton only achieved 1005 points.

    But while I was checking the individual school performance pages for each of the high scoring state schools mentioned by Fraser I noticed a strange thing. The data includes a very simple and
    easy-to-understand figure, a figure ignored by Fraser – the average
    A-level grade achieved by the school.
    And almost all the top state schools quoted in the article had an average
    A-level grade of B or worse – not even enough for entry to most of the better universities in this country.

    So I decided to repeat Fraser’s’s graph but this time for the number of A-level points per subject. Of the top 50 schools in England
    on this measure seven are state schools; of the top 100, fifteen are state
    schools. The state schools with the
    largest number of points per pupil averaged a B grade while all the better
    independent schools averaged an A or A* grade.
    So some state schools are putting pupils in for many subjects, including
    General Studies and Critical Thinking A-levels, but achieving lower average
    grades. Given that entry to the top universities is based on getting three or four top grades, it might be thought that these schools are getting it all wrong.
    Not being defensive – it is just that the claim Fraser made and you repeated is so wrong.

    • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

      How awfully harrowing for you. You seem eaten up by it. Defending the indefensible, the privileges of the few. Maybe toff schools no longer offer value for money.

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  • Peter Bering

    Condensed Britain: Oxbridge or f****d.

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