A level spin and reality – or why can’t journalists do basic statistics?

A level results day always throws up a wide range of stories. There’s plenty of human interest stuff but also plenty of opportunities for organisations to spin their results to their advantage and for journalists to demonstrate their lamentable failure to deal with basic statistics.

One of the features this year was the very determined attempt, spearheaded by Policy Exchange, to try and claim the results as a triumph for free schools. On August 14th, Jonathan Simons tweeted “40% of all free school students get AAB. Much better than maintained schools. Free schools for the win. End of debate”. Sadly just a few hours later the figure had fallen to 35% as apparently not all schools were included the first time. The commitment to high quality analysis is as ever impressive!

There aren’t of course that many free schools taking A level – new secondaries have yet to grow through to that stage because they’ve not been open long enough. So mostly this is the handful of 16 to 19 free schools – there are actually 6 open but 5 have only been open for one year so won’t have any A level results yet! And the odd failing private school that chose to join the state sector.
So we’re left with the self-styled London Academy of Excellence. This is the super-selective school in Newham promoted by a group of public schools headed by Eton and Brighton College. Their spin really went into overdrive, trumpeting the fact that 40% of students got AAB in traditional subjects. Journalists fell over themselves in amazement and pronounced that the key to social mobility has been discovered.

In his comments the head of the school displayed all the patronising ignorance that so often characterises products of the private sector. He told the Guardian:

“In Newham there were hundreds and thousands of young people who wanted to do traditional A levels. In the past they couldn’t do them because there was no one to provide them. Either they were having to go to schools outside the borough or they were having to take places at colleges here that didn’t provide biology, maths and history. They were having to take BTECs, GNVQs and that type of thing.”

Thousands … really, in one London borough? And need we wonder any further about why we can’t get vocational education right when we see this kind of contempt oozing out of people like this headteacher.

The real lie though is the assertion that no one else is making provision for Newham students. In fact there is an established sixth form college in Newham. It’s a comprehensive institution not a selective one. It offers just about every A level you can name, including of course biology, maths and history. Last year it sent 60 students to Russell Group universities and this year 162 students have Russell Group offers.

To understand what the London School of Excellence is really achieving needs just a bit of simple research. The basic entry qualification for this school is 5 GCSEs at A or A* – far higher than any normal sixth form or college. And of course they achieved these grades at the comprehensive schools in Newham and surrounding boroughs , so maybe we should look for the secret of social mobility there – after all turning the highest achieving GCSE students into high achieving A level ones is not really the hard part.

Analysing what students with 5 A grades at GCSE usually achieve at A level isn’t simple. But for example:

In maths A level, half of all candidates with an average grade A at GCSE got A or A* at A level and 87% of those with average GCSE at A* got A or A* at A level. In English A level the comparable figures are 40% and 88%.

So there is really nothing very surprising in 40% of this highly selective cohort getting top A level grades. It’s what happens pretty much everywhere.

The magic bullet then isn’t stardust from public schools. It’s nothing more complicated that cherry picking the best from comprehensive schools for miles around. For the real answers to social mobility we need to look somewhere else. And we need also to ask ourselves what this kind of super-selection is doing to our supposed commitment to social cohesion.