Is ‘Britain’s Brainiest School’ a business or a place of learning?

If you missed a Sunday detention you were threatened with a £100 fine

Last month, the BBC aired a documentary on Cardiff Sixth Form College, calling it “Britain’s Brainiest School”. The documentary was, essentially, a national publicity stunt. Their claim is that is was their blend of ‘Eastern and Western approaches to education‘ that has led to their success. I disagree.

Awash with drama, gossip and, of course, scandal, Cardiff Sixth Form College is perhaps just like any other college – only it sits top of the league tables. Yet, their 99 per cent A*- B A level attainment rate is nothing I feel proud of, having moved from the college’s hallowed ground to university this year.

Its real secret? Pressurised throughout the year, students there typically enjoy a 50 hour working week (not counting extra hours dedicated to compulsory extracurricular societies) compared to the more typical 16 hours per week seen at state schools. It is the robotic work schedule, leaving no time for normal adolescent development alongside a tough selection process, that delivers the right results. And if you don’t deliver the right results? Well then you’re sent to the school’s Oxford branch with the added benefit that you do not dilute statistics and risk a lower standing in the league tables.

Just to be considered a place, you need complete subject aptitude tests, an interview and have a high attainment of GCSE or equivalent grades – at least six A*s, nine to be eligible for a scholarship. And this cherry-picking happens on an international basis. Out of a year of approximately 184 students, I was one of only 10 “locals” – qualifying via ownership of a British passport. The majority of the rest were imported from Asia – in this instance the factory is ironically situated in the Western Hemisphere.

Leavers' Hoodie

My leavers hoodie

Most of these students have already covered the A level syllabuses in their home countries, so high grades should come as no surprise. If you’re selecting only the top students from around the world, and then working them for 50 hours a week, you are going to get top results. The boarding price tag starts at £22,500 per year escalating to £44,125 per year, not including the extra thousands of pounds to be spent in exchange for guardianship (for those under 18), work experience and school uniform. It should come as no wonder that the executive director of the college, Yasmin Sarwar, known by most as Mrs S, won the Welsh Asian Women Achievement award for business – not education – last year. Scores of 65 per cent in class tests warranted demerits. Accumulating demerits led to detentions. Missing a Sunday detention was threatened with a £100 fine. Other finable offences included not cleaning your kitchen and missing homework or tests.

What of the students that don’t make the cut? Should they fail to attain AAB in their AS exams, they are given two options. Either leave and start anew, or be shipped off to the school’s Oxford branch under similar fee conditions. An email from one of the school’s admissions administrators confirms this. It reads: “There is a requirement of a minimum AAB in AS subjects to be able to progress into A2 year. Should the student fail to meet the requirement they will be either offered to repeat the year or transfer to another college.” But why? The answer is simple. Sarwar and co can’t risk these liabilities diluting their “top” statistics. The statistics seem to be the only thing giving the college an edge over more reputed schools like Eton or Harrow.

Cardiff Sixth Form College

The college building

However, it isn’t just the school’s status at the “top” that comes under scrutiny. The college’s treatment of students, according to its students, is just as interesting. Last March an anonymous group of them conducted an opinion survey. They collected 210 responses, around two thirds of the student body at the time. When asked whether they felt the college was fair to them, 34 per cent agreed – the rest either disagreeing or choosing not to comment. The survey went on to show that 51 per cent of students were satisfied with the college in general, with just 41 per cent feeling that the college “pays attention” to their concerns. Mrs S said: “[These] allegations contain erroneous, misleading and outdated information.” The survey culminated in an additional comments field. The responses include:

“The school should not [threaten to] fine the students if they miss a detention, they should never use money as a threat.”

“l feel that the college is more concerned with our score (ie A* percentage) than our future.”

“Demerit points should not be given for poor academic performance.”

“It is unacceptable to fine a student.”

“This is a company more than a school, its emphasis is on making money for the school but there is no emphasis on the students’ good.”

“The school rarely ever listens to our grievances, and serves out punishment with no clarification.”

“Threatening to use money as a punishment (e.g. for not going to detentions) does not seem right.”

“This college is a business. Not a charity. It only has the status of a ‘charity’ because the college gives scholarships to local students. Clearly, there are profits being made.”

And you’d be a fool to think there was solace after the school day’s end. Kept in private student accommodation manned by 29 wardens, students students enjoy the benefits of CCTV cameras, monitored 24 hours a day, to keep a 10pm curfew and gender divide – girls and boys are not allowed to live together.

The real secrets behind Cardiff Sixth Form College are nothing to applaud and they are perhaps not unique – but this shouldn’t mar their gravity. The students feel powerless against the very power structures they’re paying for. In the words of one of the survey’s respondents: “Change is necessary, but it will never come, knowing the college.”