Selective free school head comes under fire from college principal for ‘complete untruth’ over A-level claims

The principal of a London sixth form college has hit back at a nearby head teacher’s claim in the national media that his highly selective free school was the only option for A-level learners in the borough.

Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College (Newvic), described the claims of John Weeks, from the London Academy of Excellence (LAE), which requires prospective learners to have achieved five As or A*s at GCSE-level, as “a complete untruth”.

John Weeks

John Weeks

Mr Weeks, a former deputy head teacher at Brighton College independent school, was quoted in a piece in the Guardian about this year’s A-level results at LAE — the first free school sixth form college two years ago — as saying: “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 school in the surrounding boroughs or — if they couldn’t afford to do that — they were having to take places at colleges here that didn’t provide biology, maths and history. They were having to do BTecs, GNVQs and that type of thing.”

However, in his blog, Mr Playfair hit back, writing: “This is a complete untruth. Newvic has been offering a very wide range of A-levels (all those available at LAE and many more) for more than 20 years.

Eddie Playfair

Eddie Playfair

“The many thousands of students who have taken A-level subjects at NewVic over the last 20 years and progressed to competitive degree courses in selective universities will be surprised to hear that they’ve been airbrushed out of the history of education in Newham.”

Mr Weeks’ claim came with figures that showed around 40 per cent of his sixth formers got AAB grades in traditional subjects, in comparison to 10.4 per cent national average.

In addition, four LAE students won places at Oxbridge, while 68 of its 160-strong cohort were set for Russell Group institutions in September — which works out to 42.5 per cent.

But questions have been raised about whether LAE’s results are comparable with the national average because it is so selective where other schools and college are not.

On Twitter, @lizziemaypalmer wrote: “Given how selective it is, LAE’s results/uni figures are not that impressive.”

And @Roborovski1 tweeted that the figures ignored that LAE, “is far more selective than most grammar schools (five A grades minimum)”.

Education blogger Henry Stewart, writing on localschoolsnetwork.org.uk, said: “One is tempted to ask not how LAE has done so well but why it was not able to achieve more for its highly talented students?”

He added: “In contrast to LAE, Newvic accepts virtually all young people who apply and has a fully comprehensive mix, including many taking vocational routes. It is truly a college that serves the whole community.”

The performance of LAE might be set against that of Newvic, where, of the 75 students who arrived with 5 As or A*s at GCSE, Mr Playfair estimated that more than 60 are going to Russell Group institutions.

He wrote: “Newvic’s university progression rates are very high: 767 students progressed overall in 2013, 99 per cent of all A-level applicants to higher education progressed and we regularly get students into Russell group institutions (60 in 2013, possibly more this year) including Oxbridge (two this year).

“NewVic is comprehensive, so our overall scores will not be as high as those of more selective providers but our A-level results will certainly bear a like-for-like comparison.

“We also have a wide and comprehensive vocational offer which is extremely successful and attracts learners in its own right. We recruit with integrity and have never pushed applicants towards vocational courses if they want to do A-levels and meet the entry requirements, why on earth would we?”

Mr Weeks declined FE Week requests today for comment.