Perhaps the first question is do GCSE results actually matter? As far as
the top universities are concerned they do, but to differing degrees.
Oxford and Cambridge will always claim that top scores at AS can make up for
weaker GCSEs but, having spent many years interviewing for one Oxbridge
College, my judgement is that they do matter, and fewer than seven A* would
count against a candidate in the final selection. What was clear after two
rounds of interviews was that, yes, there were exceptions but generally
those selected had at least seven.
With the decision to drop AS scores as being an integral part of A level it
is likely that GCSE grades will become even more important. Just as likely,
of course is that the most competitive universities will set more of their
own "make or break" tests.
Just as with A levels the results from the UK boarding schools have varied
with the quality of intake. Wycombe Abbey may be very selective at point of
entry but their tally of 99% A*/A is simply stunning. It is no wonder that
Head Rhiannon Wilkinson is "hugely proud" of her girls but she is also very
keen to emphasise all that they do in sport and the creative Arts. One
can't really see any significant variation across subjects until we examine
the results of those schools whose percentage is somewhat lower than this.
Across quite a number it is clear that Biology has come top of the sciences
this year but, as at A level, Mathematics is on the march and generally
pupils have performed better in Maths than for instance, in English. This
is true right across the sector, whether boys, girls or co-ed.
Certain schools seem to have particular niche subjects which stand out from
the rest. Sherborne Boys Art Department has had a tremendous year both at
GCSE and A level with all grades bar one at A*. Similarly at King's
Canterbury languages were strong but Chinese stands out with 21/22 A*.
Likewise Dauntseys' Drama department has done superbly well. At Canford
Maths, Art and Music stand out while at St Mary's Calne 92% of the total
year group gained A or A* in Religious Studies which is compulsory.
The big boarding schools just plough through the GCSE programme with their
pupils gaining A and A* grades in virtually all subjects; Tonbridge (95%),
Sevenoaks (94%), Oundle (86%). Interestingly, while most divide between
single subject science (triple award) and the dual-award qualification,
Sevenoaks insist on all taking all three subjects believing that stretching
the pupils is more important than the simple accumulation of A*s.
Some of the co-ed schools such as Oundle and King's Canterbury report a
gender divide with girls scoring more A*s. Is this simply because girls
work harder and are more organised at this stage or is there something more
to this? Over twelve years of interviewing I have seen increasing numbers
of girls gaining places at Oxford. Is the seed sown at GCSE level? The
down-side of being in a highly selective school is, of course, the feeling
of failure for those not gaining a full set of A* grades.
If there is a conclusion to be drawn it is that the top boarding schools do
a superb job at GCSE level but it is also clear that schools which may be
slightly below the radar have tremendous strengths in particular areas.
September is looming and the start of a new academic year will bring through
a new crop of pupils to the UK's Boarding Schools. It is certain that we
will see continual change in Government Ministers, curricula and technology
but one stabilising influence in all this will be the schools themselves.
They will continue to do what they always have; deliver a world class
education that ranges far beyond the confines of the classroom.