Who cares what you get in your A Levels?
by Matt Grist
A storm has broken out over a Times Educational Supplement article in which Jonny Griffiths, a teacher at Paston College Norfolk, recounts telling a bright student called Michael who is ‘obsessed’ with getting an A grade that: “apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A-levels?... What is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?”
At first, a lot of people thought this was satire. But apparently Jonny Griffiths is real and uttered these words with a straight face, which is quite astonishing and rather depressing. We hear a lot of anecdotes about unambitious teachers settling for second best, but never from the horse’s mouth like this.
Beyond anecdote, how widespread is dreadful mediocrity in the state system? It is hard to quantify such things, but there is indicative evidence that it is pretty widespread.
In 2009 the Sutton Trust undertook some research looking at application rates to England’s top universities from different upper-secondary institutions. What it found was that such universities showed no bias towards equally qualified candidates from different kinds of institution (all had similar acceptance rates), but that students at some institutions made far more applications than others (giving them a better chance of being accepted onto a sought-after course).
Not surprisingly, well-qualified students from high-performing independent schools made the most applications, followed by grammar schools and high-performing comprehensives, with middling and poorly performing comprehensives, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges bringing up the rear.
Remember, students from all these institutions were equally qualified in terms of A levels, the Sutton Trust simply measured the number of applications they made. Now, the latter is not a perfect proxy for the ambition of teachers, since there are many influences on the applications process (including the influence of parents and peers). Yet it would seem that the level of disparity in numbers of applications indicates many teachers in the state system are not doing anywhere near enough to encourage bright kids to aim high. For example, high-performing independent schools made twice as many applications to top universities as similarly high-performing comprehensives.
So as well as Jonny Griffiths being real the evidence suggests the problem he exemplifies is equally real. Interestingly, this gives succour to Russell Group vice chancellors who say the causes of less-affluent candidates not getting in to top universities lie further down the supply chain. And it is not a problem Les Ebdon will be able to do anything about as head of OFFA. Nevertheless, it is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed.