The secret of success at Sevenoaks? Doing away with A-levels

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The Independent Online

Forget the Winchesters, Westminsters and Etons of this world, which for years have topped the school exams league tables.

Forget, too, the battle of the sexes, which has seen girls' schools dominate recently. This year a new name has emerged with the best points score for its sixth-formers in the league table of independent schools' results, and it is Sevenoaks School.

Sevenoaks' succession to the throne is because it has been pioneering the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative to A-levels. This year, 199 of its sixth-form pupils did the IB - while only 17 did A-levels. And, from September, A-levels will be dead and buried at the school.

The youngsters achieved the remarkable points score of 587.9. In A-level terms that would be four grade As and a B for every pupil. But then, as Dr Chris Greenhalgh, deputy head at Sevenoaks, which charges fees of up to £20,199 a year and now has 980 pupils, is quick to point out, the IB is not the same as A-levels.

"I don't think it's right when people say 30 points in the IB is the equivalent to three grade As at A-level," he said. "I would say it's equal to six grade Bs.

"The strength of the IB is its depth. It also recognises the extended essay (soon to become a compulsory part of A-levels), allows for creativity and insists on a broader range of studies."

Under the IB, pupils have to study six subjects, including one foreign language, maths and science, and do a 4,000-word essay.

The reason for the extraordinary success at Sevenoaks this year - and that of Hockerill Anglo European school in Bishop's Stortford, Essex, in the state school league tables - is the decision by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), to draw up a points tariff for the IB as well as the traditional A-levels examinations.

Top marks in all six compulsory subjects and the extended essay can earn an IB pupil 45 points. Few achieve that - and anyone achieving 35 points would get more points than a pupil who achieved three grade As at A-level.

Sevenoaks, which is one of the three oldest non-church schools in the country, and was founded in the 15th century, prides itself on its pioneering reputation in education - and became the first school to offer the IB 25 years ago. Situated in the so-called "garden of England" within easy reach of the Channel tunnel, it sees itself as an international school.

It offers a wide range of languages to its pupils - including Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, Danish, Modern Greek, Norwegian, Portuguese, Japanese and Italian, as well as the more traditional French, German and Spanish. If it cannot find a full-time teacher to teach a language, it will engage someone part-time to come in and give lessons.

"It certainly wasn't a marketing ploy when we first offered the IB," Dr Greenhalgh said. "In fact, there were a lot of people who thought it would be a complete disaster. We just felt it was wrong that - at 16 - people would give up maths, science and languages completely.

"It has taken a while for people to get used to it but I think parents think we're distinctive. With the new modular A-levels, you are learning something then being tested on it, learning something then being tested on it, and there's no time for creativity. The IB gives you that."

Katy Ricks, the head teacher at Sevenoaks School, added: "All those who are involved in the teaching and study for the IB diploma find it an exciting programme, with many benefits for students as they embark on competitive higher education courses and prepare themselves for the wider world."

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