Grammar school that forced out A-level pupils slammed in damning inquiry report

A south London grammar school which forced pupils out at the end of year 12 because of their AS-level grades “put the institution above the pupils”, an independent inquiry into practices at the school has found.

The probe, commissioned by Bromley Council, found St Olave’s in Orpington unlawfully prevented pupils from continuing into their second year of sixth form for several years, and detailed how a move to toughen the entry criteria for year 13 last year left pupils crying in the school car park.

The school has accepted the findings of the inquiry, carried out by prominent education adviser Christine Whatford, and said it has “already
taken a number of proactive steps” to address the concerns raised.

Year 12 pupils were being forced out of the school as long ago as 2011, after existing admissions rules were misinterpreted, the inquiry found.

But matters came to a head last summer when an investigation by the Guardian revealed how teenage pupils were left in tears after being told to leave following end-of-year exams, prompting legal action which ultimately forced a U-turn on the controversial policy.

Overall, 16 year 12 pupils had their places withdrawn last year, on the grounds that they did not perform well enough in their AS-level exams. This followed a move by the school to change its policy to require three B grades at AS-level, rather than three C-grades, to justify continued study.

Statutory school exclusion guidance stipulates that it is “unlawful to exclude a pupil for a reason such as academic attainment/ability”, while the school admissions code insists schools “must not withdraw a place once a child has started at the school unless it was fraudulently obtained”.

The inquiry found that Aydin Önaç, the school’s former headteacher, who resigned last November, was not told “that what he was doing was illegal”.

However, as headteacher, “it was his responsibility to know that it was illegal to withdraw a child’s place on academic grounds in the same way as he agreed he did know it is illegal to permanently exclude a child on academic grounds, which is why he didn’t use the permanent exclusion procedures”.

The report is also highly critical of the way the school communicated with pupils who were told they couldn’t stay on. It describes “distraught pupils, both boys and girls, crying in the car park”, with angry parents “who had not been invited in to support their children being given the bad news”.

Pupils originally told to leave but invited back following the school’s U-turn were also made to feel unwelcome, “to the point that some came back for just a few days and then left”. Even after the decision to abandon the policy, there was “no acknowledgement that the unlawful policy had created such anguish among students and there was no apology”, one parent said.

It has also emerged that governors “were not involved in or kept up to date” with events at the end of the summer last year. Upon receiving a briefing on September 13, “they had discovered they were being taken to court without having been informed”.

Paul Wright, the school’s new chair of governors, said: “We welcome the report and fully accept its findings and recommendations. We have already
taken a number of proactive steps to address many of the issues raised, particularly around governance and student welfare.

“Listening and working with you as parents and carers, together with staff and students, has been key in making these improvements. We know there is still work to be done and so we will continue to work with you, the borough and the Diocese of Rochester as we seek to address any remaining actions.”