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Monday, 25 September 2017 10:35

Exclusion from School Sixth Forms: Kent on Sunday 10 September 2017

UPDATE: Whilst this article draws on a number of previous articles on the issue, the most recent contains an important clarification by government of the law, leaving no room whatever for ambiguity, not available when the following was written.

You will find the original article in the Kent on Sunday Education Supplement here.  

Back in January I wrote an article for Kent on Sunday, about the illegal actions of Invicta Grammar School in permanently excluding up to 22 Year Twelve students for not achieving high grades in their AS Exams last summer. The parallel article on my website has attracted a record 24,722 hits to date, and a flood of comments from students affected. The school dismissed my concerns out of hand, the headteacher commenting: “This is an ‘interpretation' by a couple of students- it is not accurate".  

In the last few weeks, a parallel case has arisen at St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington where 16 girls were thrown out as covered in KOS last week. Several parents took legal action and the Department for Education, which refused to offer a view earlier in the year, issued the following statement: ‘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’. As a result, the school relented and all the students were reinstated, if they wished to return.

Whilst this is no consolation for last year’s students from Invicta and some other local schools, many of whom saw their career plans ruined, it is a green light for the many students in similar positions this summer to challenge any exclusion. As one parent wrote to me this week: ‘What happened to our daughter has had a massive impact on her; she is still limping along. To be honest her confidence was so damaged we don't know if she will ever believe in herself in the same way again’. What an indictment of the practice, but certainly not alone, as career dreams are shattered.

Whilst a few students leave grammar schools at the end of Year 12 of their own accord, for a variety of reasons, eleven Kent grammars lost more than ten students last summer, the list headed up by Invicta (26), most of the rest being coastal grammars and in North West Kent. There were another twelve schools with more than ten the previous year, Invicta again with 26 students lost. In Medway, I don’t yet have the 2016 figures, but in 2015, the two super-selective schools, Rochester Grammar (24) and Rainham Mark Grammar (22), headed the lists. Of course, this is not a problem unique to grammar schools and many non-selective schools aspiring to be high fliers, carry out the same illegal cull. The difference is that I can pinpoint grammar school fall-out via school censuses, as all (usually) pupils will be on two year A Level courses. However, with many students at non-selective schools on one-year courses it is impossible to draw conclusions. I will not have a statistical view of the summer 2017 picture in Kent and Medway, until the Autumn schools census becomes available at the end of the year.

It is important to stress that this regulation only applies to state schools and academies. Colleges and Sixth Form Colleges are subject to a different set of rules that allows removal, and private schools are subject only to their own decisions.

The Association of School and College Leaders, the professional association for heads and deputies, has published advice on this matter for their members, which again makes clear that expulsion from Year 12 for non-disciplinary reasons is not allowed, so there can be no excuse for ignorance of such actions.  It does go on to say that students can be ‘encouraged’ to look at other institutions, but the school cannot force the issue.

The difference between 2016 and 2017 is the media interest that has been stirred up by the St Olave’s case. I appear to have been at the centre of it, being recognised as the first to point up the issue back in January, and gave interviews to three national newspapers, live interviews to national and local radio and, most exciting of all a live interview with the BBC Television News Channel from a field in rural France on my way home from holiday!

As a result of all this exposure, the government regulations are now far more widely known and I have reports of students in different parts of the country successfully challenging school decisions. However, I suspect that this year, many other of what I estimate to be thousands of students illegally excluded across the country, will slip through the net with careers blighted.

Other schools will soon follow the example of Invicta Grammar School which had for 2016 entry posted unlawful academic requirements for progress into Year 13 on its website.  These have now been removed, an implicit recognition that the school belatedly acknowledges the legal situation, and I have had no enquiries about Year 13 Admission this summer.

So why do it? Schools that have typically placed the unlawful entry requirement on progress to Year 13, are obsessed with A Level League positions, and willing to sacrifice students to that aim. A letter to new parents from the headteacher of Invicta Grammar school this week states: ‘I am particularly pleased to find that we are once again, the top performing grammar school in Maidstone at GCSE Level and A Level. Our A Level results were particularly impressive in that we were considerably higher than the other local grammar schools. This is a fantastic achievement and one which I am sure our students will be very proud of’. No mention there of the 15% of Invicta pupils who left voluntarily or were forced out between the end of Year 11 and the end of Year 12, the highest net loss of any Kent grammar school, in order to achieve this boast, who presumably don’t share that pride.

There will be many other students in both Kent and Medway that have been equally sacrificed at the end of Year Twelve for the school to achieve high examination results at A Level. My advice is certainly to return to the school armed with the Government regulations and challenge them. You may wish to consult my website www.kentadvice.co.uk where there is fuller advice for students in this situation. In the end, if the school refuses to budge, it can take time to achieve success, by which time it may be too late to rejoin having missed time at the school. I think this may well become a goldmine for the education legal profession, as schools are taken to task for ruining young people’s careers.

I don’t anticipate the situation will be anywhere near as serious in the future, as the media furore this summer means that the law is now widely known, not least by schools who will want to avoid legal actions by families.

Some misconceptions were highlighted in comments made in radio interviews. These included that it was important schools should be able to weed out underperforming pupils, who would otherwise waste their time in the school. This completely misses the point. Whilst high fliers may be aiming for the most competitive universities, the lower pass grades provide admission to many other higher education institutions as well as (and increasingly importantly with the high cost of a degree) apprenticeships and training courses that require A Level passes and lead on to good careers. It is crucial to remember that schools exist for the benefit of their pupils and not vice versa.

Secondly, was this part of a wet philosophy that argues all should win prizes? No, for any A Level has to be earned, the distinction between grades qualifies students for a different choice of range of work or study, and for many a Grade E pass is a real achievement and it behoves no one to denigrate it. This is in spite of the media hysteria driven by school ambitions that focuses on A and B Grades only, a real put down for those who have worked hard and achieved their potential at a lower level. And yes, some students fail.

On Radio London, Vanessa Feltz produced one of the most telling points, identifying the down side of this exposure, when schools can’t expel the lower grade students in the future.  Expect those that are most obsessed with grades to put up the academic requirement to enter the sixth form in the first place, which is perfectly legal, but can only happen after a consultation, so the first consequential changes will be for entry to Sixth Form in 2019, as 2018 entry is already settled.

Sadly, alternative routes to A Level are vanishing rapidly under the financial pressures on Sixth Form provision. The number of less popular courses in grammar schools is being reduced; three of the four Further Education Colleges have abandoned A Level, the fourth being in the far West in Tunbridge Wells, and a number of non-selective schools are closing their Sixth forms. The latter include St Edmund’s Catholic in Dover and High Weald Academy in Cranbrook that only announced this to shocked students last week. The question has to be asked: is it deliberate policy to make life even more difficult for post sixteen students, or is this just different ideas and economies coinciding accidentally?

Last modified on Monday, 25 September 2017 11:03

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