Dozens of parents and pupils have contacted the Guardian complaining that schools in different areas of the country are ejecting sixth form students half way through their two-year A-level course after failing to achieve sufficiently high grades.
Some of the schools identified are in areas where there are a high number of grammar schools, including Kent, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, though non-selective schools elsewhere are also implicated.
The testimony from parents and students suggests the practice is widespread, and is having a detrimental effect on students. One student who lost their sixth form place last year described the “trauma and a feeling of not being good enough from being kicked out of your own school”.
They were responding to a Guardian callout following exclusive revelations that a leading state grammar school, St Olave’s in Orpington in the London borough of Bromley, is facing legal action from parents after their children were told their places were being withdrawn after they failed to get sufficiently good grades at the end of year 12.
Following the Guardian’s reports, MPs across the political spectrum expressed concern about the practice and its impact on students. Orpington’s Conservative MP, Jo Johnson, said he had raised the issue with the education minister as well as the head of St Olave’s.
“St Olave’s is a highly selective school and I obviously have no problem with having a GCSE entry requirement for a sixth form – but once pupils are in on that basis, it is surely for the school to push them to do well, not to throw them out (unless their behaviour is bad).
Lawyers acting for two St Olave’s families have issued judicial review proceedings after it emerged that about 16 pupils were told their places for year 13 – the last year of school – had been withdrawn after they failed to get the required three Bs either at AS level or in internal exams.
The Department for Education said it could not comment specifically on St Olave’s because of legal proceedings but a spokesperson said: “Our regulations make clear that schools are not allowed to remove pupils from a sixth form because of academic attainment once they are enrolled. Excluding pupils temporarily or permanently for non-disciplinary reasons is unlawful.”
Former head teacher Peter Read, who now operates as an independent education adviser in Kent, said he suspected the same was happening in other schools in the county after he spotted a dramatic reduction in the number of students at one local grammar between year 12 and the end of year 13. When he queried the discrepancy he was told the students had left voluntarily.
“I remain confident that the scandal is far more rife than a few grammar schools,” he said. “Schools are under pressure to deliver results. What they are doing is forcing children out to achieve better A-level results. There’s something very, very wrong.”
One former teacher in Buckinghamshire said it was “general practice” in grammar schools in the area. “We all know it goes on,” she said. “It’s always at the end of year 12. If their grades are not good enough, they’re told to go. It’s so damaging to the students. It’s absolutely frightful.”
Some of the responses to the Guardian callout were from parents, pupils and teachers at St Olave’s, who described the intense pressure on students to gain the highest possible academic results.
A parent said: “The school has a predominant focus on Oxbridge and medicine and others are made to feel like second class students.” The school once again declined to comment on the allegations.
The Education Datalab thinktank, which has done research into the progression of students from year 12 to 13, said the St Olave’s case was part of a broader pattern of behaviour which “a minority” of sixth forms are engaging in.
Overall, around 20% of students leave sixth form before completing their A-levelsfor a variety of different reasons. Education Datalab’s director, Rebecca Allen, said: “Once a sixth form has accepted a young person on to a course of study, they should feel compelled to support the young person to do as well as they possibly can, for the full duration of the course, bar the small number of cases where exclusion is necessary.
“Doing otherwise – taking the easy route of ditching students at the end of Year 12 for the sake of league table results – is completely wrong.”
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP and new chair of the Commons education select committee, was critical of any attempt by schools to skew exam results. “If it is the case that students are being denied the chance of equality of access, in order to skew exam results, then clearly this goes against everything that education should be about.”
Echoing concerns that the practice is more widespread, shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said the case of St Olave’s was “not an isolated incident” and the issue was about far more than the actions of one school.
“The damaging unintended consequences of the current system are why Labour made it clear we would review assessment and strengthen local accountability for schools, ensuring that they are fit for purpose and help children get the best start in life, rather than putting them at risk of losing their place at school.”
The schools watchdog, Ofsted, said its inspectors reviewed retention and destination data for both year 12 and year 13 students when visiting secondary schools, to see how many stayed on from lower to upper sixth and where they went after leaving school.
In their words: a former St Olaves’ student, who asked to remain anonymous
“I didn’t get the minimum three Bs. They told me to speak to the assistant head. At that point I was worrying. They told me I’d have to sign a contract if I wanted to be able to continue into year 13. The contract said that the school would have the right to instantly kick me out at any point in year 13 if my performance dropped below a B grade, and I’d be closely monitored.
“I left in tears, partly because of the grades and partly due to the utter lack of humanity and sympathy that was shown to me. Mental health wise, there’s so much stress on people, you can see it in some people’s faces. They’re weighed down. Some of the teachers do try to sympathise.
“No wonder the school is near the top of the league tables. The headmaster needs to realise that the school would be nothing without the pupils. If you only take in academically brilliant students then it’s obviously going to ensure your grades and stats are good. If a school takes you on, it’s their duty to take you through the years until the end no matter what your result.”