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【SCMP Education Post:Study in the UK】Remaining wary of A-level league tables

Boarding 101


We live in a cut-throat world where the demands of preparing for exams induce a great amount of stress on our children. Year after year the media is filled with negative commentary about marking standards, the proposed abolition of A-level grades and a morbid obsession with league tables. In turn, students do not receive the credit they deserve when they achieve top grades or better than predicted grades before they move on to Higher Education …


This should be  a time for celebration and achievement and I am pleased to announce that many Hong Kong students around the UK have more than exceeded their own expectations – and those of their schools and parents.


Success stories are never too far away at Cardiff Sixth Form College (CSFC) where an astounding 99% of grades were awarded at A*, A or B. 25 students from around the world achieved 4 A*. The list of astonishing statistics does not stop there.

The stories of two Hong Kong students have stood out to me. First of all, Kam Hong (Linus) Cheung secured 5A*S and two A grades and will be heading to the London School of Economics to pursue a degree in Economics. Secondly, Chun Yin Lau (Jason) gained 5A* grades and is looking forward to attending Bristol University to study Biochemistry with Medical Biochemistry. His story is even more noteworthy because he was rejected by CSFC a few years ago. Thus, our students have strength of character as well as talent.The reason I am drawn to CSFC this year is because Hong Kong students have proved that they can mix with the best. 96% of all grades achieved by Hong Kong students were awarded at A*-B, while 56% of all grades were A* and 88% of all grades were A*-A. Of the 38 Hong Kong students who completed A-Levels with CSFC this year, 32 achieved at least one A* grade or more, while 9 students achieved at least 4A*s and two students scored an impressive 5A*.


Another case in point is that of Bill Wong who thrived at The Royal Hospital School in Suffolk – a less academic yet thoroughly supportive and community-based institution. Bill went through a great deal including repeating a school year twice and falling out with his parents. Royal Hospital helped him to excel and get his life back on track. Bill made it into University College London (UCL) to study Computer Science and also captained his University rugby team for the scoops national title.


Now, we are in the midst of absorbing this year’s A-level independent school league tables. I should argue that these tables should never be the main indicator for parents seeking a school for their child. I do not generally support the view that independent schools prioritise their rankings in exam league tables over ensuring a solid education for their pupils, yet the media tends to overhype the tables as if they are worth parents’ full attention.


Despite the media frenzy, some schools have been encouraged to put the very best slant on their own results so as to make them stand out. They may, in fact, present their results in all manner of ways: Best ever A to C results, best ever A/B results, greatest proportion of A* or A grades and even the percentage of Upper Sixth moving on with aggregate results of at least AAA or better.

With these league tables, parents need to have perspective and seek professional guidance if necessary. CSFC is undoubtedly a top school for those looking for an academic education. Yet, there are other schools which perhaps offer a more traditional British boarding experience. Having said that, CSFC has certainly put work into the pastoral and enrichment side of schooling in recent years and is catching up fast. Overall, parents need to sit with their children and discuss their needs, leading to the creation of a shortlist of schools which can be visited. 


Returning to the thrust of my argument, recognition of achievement is far more important than rankings. Indeed, who has stopped to congratulate male students who have narrowed the gap on girls’ results almost to zero? 25.7 per cent of A-levels taken by boys were graded A or A*, while the percentage for girls stands at 26. The gap in 2003 was 2.9 percentage points.  


The structure of the A-level has undergone significant change in recent years a modular format being replaced by linear two-year courses with exams at the end. Rather than calling for A-level grades to be scrapped or becoming obsessed with who is ranked where in the league tables, we need to embrace the modifications to the system and reward students who have accepted the modifications, paid little heed to the politics and got on with the work to gain the results they need to get where they want to be in life.


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