As principal of a highly selective academic school, and previously as head of a specialist music school, I’d like to explore why saying no to a student who won’t fit well in a school should be seen as an act of kindness rather than a rejection. Taking students who are not in a position to succeed in the environment, or who will struggle to keep up with the other students, is setting them up to fail. Creating a homogenous group in terms of interests and ability can create a special environment where these students can thrive and challenge each other.

One of the hardest things about being Principal of a highly academic school is having to turn down impressive and interesting young people who, for whatever reason, don’t make the cut. Having led both selective and non-selective schools, I am clear both have an important place in the educational landscape, and both can offer very special environments for our students. Each, however, brings different challenges.

As we think about the question of selection, and its partner rejection, it’s important to start by thinking about why some schools are selective in the first place. There are many different ways in which schools might explain this, but ultimately these all come down to a small handful of issues. In part, selection is of course about standards, and creating or maintaining the school’s reputation.

Schools which are selective, whether this is about academic standards, musical ability, sport or something else, will have a cohort of students who are starting from a higher benchmark and are therefore naturally going to achieve more in their results, concerts, or matches. Another reason might be related to creating an environment of like-minded young people who share similar interests and are passionate about exploring these.

Whatever the reason why a school is selective, once established it creates a very different set of questions during the admissions process which mean you can no longer consider the student in isolation, but must grapple with the key question of what their experience will be like as part of that cohort.

Let’s take my school, The National Mathematics and Science College, in the UK. We are the highest achieving specialist STEM college in the UK, blessed with a very gifted group of young people who join us to study A-levels, or our one-year Pre A-level programme. Our students are all working at the A*/A grade level, with many going significantly beyond the A-level syllabus, so when I think about whether to accept a student into the College I need to reflect on how they will fit within that community.

As an example, I recently interviewed a young person who wanted to join our A-level programme. They took our assessments, and came out on the borderline mathematically.

So, I did a detailed assessment of their mathematical understanding and skills as part of their interview to dig under the surface of the assessment. As a result of this, it was clear that this delightful young person had several gaps in their current understanding which would hold them back in their A-level studies. So, I’m left with a choice; do I accept the young person and try and rectify the gaps and see how they get on? Or do I reject them, and suggest they go elsewhere? Which of these is the best outcome for the school? For the student? Which of these outcomes is the kindest choice?

As I think about this question, I’m reminded of some very good advice I was given years ago when I was unsuccessful applying for a job I particularly wanted at the time. “Remember, the worst thing isn’t not getting the job, the worst thing is getting the wrong job!” The same sentiment is equally true of gaining a place in a school or university. The worst thing isn’t not getting into a school, the worst thing is getting into the wrong school.

I vividly remember a young man who was one of my tutees in a previous school, who must have narrowly made the cut to gain a place. He was a bright young man by national standards, and went on to get a collection of B and C grades at GCSE, placing him in the upper half of the population. But he spent 5 years at that school being at or towards the bottom of every class, every test, and every exam. By the end of his time at the school he genuinely thought he was stupid as he wasn’t able to keep up with his exceptional peers. The damage to his morale and
self-esteem was sad to see, and I often wondered what things might have been like for him if he’d been in a non-selective school where he didn’t feel he was always struggling to keep up.

Let’s return to the question of the young person I interviewed a few weeks back. What would be the best thing for them? Should I offer them a place at the College, where they’ll be starting behind everyone else, and therefore have to work harder just to catch up and try to keep up? Would they have enjoyed the experience of being with students for whom the A-level course is often not demanding enough? In the end I concluded that the kindest thing for this young person was to not offer them a place at the College. They showed significant potential, and in a school where they could move at a slightly slower pace, and spend more time working on their fundamental skills, I feel confident that they will go on to get very good grades. However, if I’d put them in a classroom with students who are pushing well beyond the A-level curriculum on a daily basis, this young person would have struggled to rectify the gaps in their knowledge, and wouldn’t have been able to engage properly with the extension material. All of this would have resulted in an educational experience which wouldn’t have been the most beneficial for the young person. So, when looked at in the round, sometimes the kindest thing really is to say no, however unpleasant that might feel at the time.

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