A prestigious private school in London has faced multiple investigations into the way it awarded exam grades in 2021, when all its A-level entries received A* or A, the Guardian has learned.
Senior leaders and teachers at the North London Collegiate school (NLCS) have been placed under investigation for alleged malpractice in setting teacher-assessed grades, which replaced formal exams cancelled by the government because of the Covid pandemic.
Sources at the £22,000-a-year girls’ school said more than 20 cases involving NLCS were passed to malpractice committees convened by A-level examination boards, which held a series of confidential hearings this month.
While some of the malpractice allegations have been dismissed, others have been upheld by the committees. Findings from the hearings are not publicly available and the committee’s deliberations are confidential.
A spokesperson for Pearson, the exam board involved in the investigations, said: “We take allegations of malpractice very seriously and investigate all those put to us. Where malpractice is found we have systems in place to ensure, as far as possible, that appropriate sanctions are taken according to the evidence. We cannot comment on individual cases.”
The school declined to state how many malpractice investigations or hearings involving NLCS had taken place.
A spokesperson for NLCS said: “The process and findings of any such investigations are confidential between the exam board and the parties. However, we can confirm that there has been no finding of centre [school] malpractice by NLCS.”
The revelations will reignite the controversy over the record-breaking number of top grades given by independent schools in 2021, with the proportion of A*s up nearly 150% on 2019, when formal exams were last held.
NLCS’s extraordinary results were put in the spotlight in February after the Sunday Times reported the school gave A* to more than 90% of its A-level entries in 2021, the highest in the country and a 56 percentage point increase on the 34% who achieved the grade in 2019.
The cancellation of formal A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 led to grades instead being awarded by teacher assessment using internal processes. This gave schools wide latitude over the grades awarded to their pupils.
Evidence passed to the Guardian from teachers and parents at NLCS suggested the school was prepared to award the highest possible grades to its pupils. One internal message from a senior leader advised staff to “work to ensure the students have a good day, in the way we frame the assessments. That way, every student has the potential to get the grade they could get, rather than the ones they would get.”
Teachers were warned that talk of grade inflation was “really unhelpful” and told instead that “assessing in an alternative way” was going to “advantage our students”. Staff were also told: “[There is] clear direction that our grades this year don’t need to match previous years’ grades.”
A staff meeting in March 2021 was told: “These grades will probably be the best grades the school has ever achieved … We will be working within the system to create the advantage for them [the students].”
A letter sent to parents the same month outlined how the school planned to alternate lessons with short assessments of the subjects they had just studied. “We remain confident that this strategy of preparation, followed by assessment, will afford our students the best opportunity to maximise their grades,” the letter said.
Staff who complained about the procedures said they were assured that rival schools were going to issue inflated grades, meaning NLCS students would be disadvantaged and could lose out on university places.
The hearings involving NLCS are the first confirmation of the investigations revealed by Dr Jo Saxton, the chief regulator of Ofqual, who told MPs in October that exam boards were “investigating individual cases of malpractice” at private schools in England over the 2021 results.
A spokesperson for Ofqual said: “Ofqual takes allegations of malpractice extremely seriously and we require exam boards to investigate such allegations and address any proven cases of qualifications-related malpractice in a school or college. It is not appropriate for us to comment on specific cases.”
A letter sent to Ofqual from a whistleblower, seen by the Guardian, alleged that NLCS leaders were willing to exploit loopholes in the assessment guidance issued to schools by the exam boards.
“After the government’s announcement that 2021’s A-levels and GCSEs [exams] would be cancelled, senior management at NLCS were openly excited at the possibility of obtaining ‘our best grades yet’ and the allure of this idea propelled them to make decisions that had little integrity, even though they appeared to be within the rules,” the whistleblower alleged.
In April this year the school announced NLCS’s headteacher, Sarah Clark, had resigned with immediate effect, after four years in the post.
Asked whether her departure was connected to the 2021 assessments, a spokesperson for the school said: “Having led the school through the numerous challenges posed by the Covid pandemic, in April 2022 Sarah decided that it was the right time for her to step back and spend some time with her family before she takes on her next challenge.”