Grammar school 'unlawfully threw out' students who failed to get top grades

Exclusive: Families launch legal action against St Olave’s grammar school in Orpington after about 16 sixth-formers lost final-year places

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One of the country’s leading grammar schools has been accused of acting unlawfully by throwing out sixth-form students who failed to get top grades in AS and equivalent internal exams ahead of their final A-level year.

About 16 pupils at St Olave’s grammar school in Orpington, in the London borough of Bromley, were told their places for year 13 – the last year of school – had been withdrawn after they failed to get the required three Bs. One father accused the school of dumping his son like “old garbage”.

Other students were told they would be allowed to continue on a discretionary basis and were asked to sign a contract warning that if they did not get a minimum B grade in their mocks the school reserved the right not to enter them for their A-level exams.

Lawyers acting for two of the affected families have issued judicial review proceedings against the school’s governing body, also naming Bromley, the local authority responsible for maintaining the school, as an interested party. A hearing has been set for 20 September.

Parents and teachers have criticised the school for behaving like “an exam factory”, focusing purely on results and school league table success at the expense of students’ education and welfare.

Days before the start of a new term, those students who have lost their places are reluctantly looking at alternative schools or colleges at which they can complete their A-levels in order to go on to university or pursue a career. All are devastated at losing their friendship group, and many are struggling to find schools that offer the same examining board.

Education experts say a number of other schools – including other high-achieving grammars – are employing similar tactics to ensure the best possible results, but it is thought to be the first time the issue been challenged in court.

Dan Rosenberg, the lawyer acting for the families, told the Guardian the families’ claim is that the school is operating an unlawful policy. “Proceedings have now been issued. As well as assisting our clients, these proceedings will hopefully assist others who may be affected now and/or in the future by the school’s policies and practices.

“We hope that the governing body will now reconsider the policy and its application, and further that the children affected can return to their A-level studies at the start of term with their peers.”

Students who lost their places were regarded as highly academic, passing an exam to get into the school aged 11. They all then successfully met the high threshold required to get into sixth form, many achieving a string of A*s and As at GCSE, but have now lost their school place at the final hurdle.

Many were in tears when they found out. “My son is devastated,” one father said. “It’s like putting your old garbage out. He doesn’t know what to do. We are in limbo. School starts soon and we don’t even know where he’s going.”

St Olave’s is one of the highest achieving schools in the country. On its website it boasts that this year’s A-level students achieved 96% A*/B grades; 75% of all grades were at A*/A, three percentage points up on last year, and 32 students gained straight A* grades in at least 3 subjects.

Though the results are impressive, the school’s critics complain they have only been achieved by getting rid of potentially weaker students who might bring overall results down and affect league tables. At least one other student has not been entered for an A-level as their earlier grades were not sufficiently high, and was advised to sit it privately if they wished to pursue their course.

Education lawyer Imogen Jolley, of Simpson Millar, said it was generally accepted that withdrawing a school place at the end of year 12 amounted to an exclusion, which, in the case of a local authority maintained school – as St Olave’s is – would be governed by Department for Education exclusion guidance.

Under the guidance, it is only lawful to exclude a pupil on disciplinary matters. It states clearly that it is “unlawful” to exclude for “a reason such as academic attainment/ability”.

Jolley said the guidance applies to all local authority-maintained schools, but not to sixth-form colleges or academies for 16- to 19-year-olds. “I’m aware of certain academies trying this because they don’t have to comply with exclusion guidance. They can put their own policies in place.

“In maintained school sixth forms there may be grade boundaries to get in, but once you are in the only way they can get rid of you is if there is a behaviour issue. It would be unlawful to exclude a pupil for a reason such as academic attainment or ability.”

The Guardian repeatedly contacted the school for comment, but there has been no response. At the time of publication, the Guardian was still awaiting comment from the Department for Education. Bromley council declined to comment and referred Guardian queries to the school.


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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