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Coffee House

What two years—and a free school—can do for exam results

15 August 2014

7:36 PM

15 August 2014

7:36 PM

For the first time in 32 years, the overall pass rate for A-levels has dropped, and the percentage of those achieving an A* or A grade has also dipped slightly. One part of the country that has bucked the national trend is Newham. And in particular, the borough’s London Academy of Excellence – a brand new sixth form free school.

Just under two years ago, this sixth form opened its doors to students in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country for the first time. Set up by a coalition of eight leading independent schools – including Eton, Highgate and Brighton College amongst their number – its goal was a straightforward one: to improve the record of university entry in the borough.

And it was a pretty low base. In 2010, just three children in Newham secured a place at Oxford or Cambridge. Yesterday four students from LAE secured their places at Oxbridge. In 2011, only 39 children in Newham secured places at Russell Group universities. This year the figure from LAW alone was 68.

Even though this has been achieved in under two years, there are no short cuts. With its hardwired links to leading independent schools, LAE’s MO is to teach the toughest, most demanding subjects; the A-levels that the top universities want to see to grant entry to the most competitive courses. Known as ‘facilitating subjects’, 39 per cent of LAE’s students achieved AAB results with at least two of them, compared with 2.7 per cent in Newham’s schools elsewhere. What’s more, the school managed to outperform some of the country’s leading independent schools, such as Millfield, with nine out of every ten LAE students living in the most deprived postcodes in the borough.

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This is a phenomenal achievement, and it shows just what can be accomplished when you start up a new school and have a searing vision of what is possible for the students who will attend that school. It confounds the shocking sentiment expressed far too often in our schools: ‘well, what can you expect from children from these backgrounds?’ This is exactly what free schools are about: a better deal for parents and pupils across the country. The students from LAE provide a fantastic snapshot of what is now possible, particularly for young people from some of the most challenged backgrounds.

And while each free school will have its own unique ethos and culture, LAE is typical of where new schools are being set up. For, despite what some commentators would have you believe, as a rule free schools are opening in the areas which need the most help – the areas where our young people are not getting a fair deal educationally. The simple fact is, a free school is 10 times as likely to serve the most deprived communities than the least deprived.

Over 330 free schools are now open or approved to open and the enthusiasm for them shows no sign of dimming. Here at New Schools Network, we offer intensive support to more groups applying to open free schools than ever before.

There are now primary, secondary, all-through and sixth form free schools as well as Special Schools and Alternative Provision schools. They all have their own vision and aspirations. Because most schools start from scratch and build up year-by-year, validation of free schools has had to rely on Ofsted judgements and the sight of parents voting with their feet.

Overall, the picture is very positive – on a like for like comparison, a free school is more than twice as likely to be judged outstanding than any other school – and in terms of popularity, free schools are twice as likely to be oversubscribed at primary age, and three times at secondary phase. In the future, we will be able to add compare schools’ examination performance too. Next year the first cohort of free schools, that opened in September 2011, will be entering students for GCSEs and so next summer will show the early crop of results – for both GCSE and A Level for other sixth form schools. And where LAE leads, I am sure others will follow.

Natalie Evans is Director of the New Schools Network.

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