London institutions leading the charge to elite universities

27 Aug

Three academies in London – wrongly dubbed by the press as schools – and Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, a selective state ‘school’ in a deprived part of London, are leading the charge in securing places for their pupils at Oxbridge and top-flight US universities.

Brampton Manor Academy in Newham – the second largest secondary institution in Newham and one of the poorest local authorities in the country – opened its sixth form in September 2012 with a view to increasing the rate of deprived pupils entering Oxbridge and other elite Russell Group universities.  It is doing this with great aplomb.   In 2014, one pupil received an offer to Oxbridge.  In 2018, the number increased to 25.  About 67% are the first in their families to attend university and 50% have been in receipt of free school meals. In 2019, 41 pupils progressed from the sixth form to Oxbridge.

In 2020, 51 pupils (for pupils from 11 to 18 years old) were offered places at Oxford and Cambridge for September 2020.  Over the last three years, 100 Brampton pupils mainly from minority ethnic and socially deprived backgrounds received offers of places from these two universities.

The sixth form at Brampton is selective.   In the last academic year, 2,000 to 3,000 applications were made to the lower sixth form.  All candidates were interviewed, and several turned away.

The Oxbridge successes included Dorcas Shodeinde, who was in care from the age of 14.   She will be studying law at St Catherine’s College in Oxford. Rama Rusom, a refugee from Saudi Arabia with Palestinian and Syrian parents, who came to the UK in 2013, was offered a place at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, to study English.   Victor Idowu, who is from a single-parent family and receiving free school meals, will study medicine in Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He will be the first in his family to go to university.

Daniel Adesanya, of African heritage, will be heading for Cambridge to read political science.   He told The Times that the entrance exam and interview for his academy was “a lot more daunting” than for Cambridge.

At Harris Westminster Academy, a sixth form college which is selective, 44 pupils secured places to Oxbridge.   The academy is a mixed sixth-form college in Westminster, established to increase the entry of pupils from deprived areas to top universities. The Harris Federation took over Westminster School and converted it into an academy in 2013. The government injected £45 million during the transition.  It seems as if this investment is paying off.

At the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, which is fortunate enough to be sponsored by a consortium of private institutions including Eton and Brighton College, as well as HSBC, and benefiting from huge fund-raising by parents, 37 pupils received Oxbridge offers.

At Newham Collegiate Sixth (NCS) Form Centre, Lennox Keeble, who is the youngest of five children and living in Dagenham is heading for Princeton to study physics.  His mother is from Sierra Leone and father is English (both carers). Princeton awarded Lennox a full scholarship worth $320,000 (£245,000).  While neither parent went to university, both have had aspirations for their children. Lennox is responding in buckets.

Xuan Nguyen, a second student at NCS will be going to Harvard.  His parents hail from rural Vietnam and arrived in this country when they were teenagers.  He said that they were unfortunate because they did not speak English so could not go to university. “But they’ve always had high aspirations and hopes for their children.”

Umar Azad, a third NCS pupil, whose mother came to Britain from Bangladesh at the age of 17, secured a place at Harvard too.   He told The Times correspondent: “As soon as she (his mother) got here – younger than I am now – she worked at fast food places, just to support the family.  “I think I get a lot of my resourcefulness from her because she made the best of her situation. So, I thought, I need to make the most of the opportunities available to me. Since I’ve been lucky enough to be at an institution that would help me pursue my goals, I have to make the most of it.”

Catherine Lowe, the fourth student, will be heading for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her parents allowed her to apply. While they encouraged her, they did not believe she would succeed. She got in. She accepted the place at the MIT and turned down an offer from Oxford University.

The inspiration behind these youngsters’ successes has been their headteacher, Mouhssin Ismail.  Mr Ismail worked long hours as a City lawyer but gave up his job to become a teacher.  He was rapidly promoted and now, at the age of 41 has become an inspirational headteacher in the East End of London.

The London success story is not replicated at the UK’s second biggest city, Birmingham.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he wanted “to end the current injustice that means a pupil from a London state school is now 50% more likely to go to a top university than a pupil from the West Midlands. That is not only unjust, it is such a waste of human talent.”

Official figures reveal that 15% of pupils from London moved on to universities in the Russell Group in 2017-18 compared with 10% in the West Midlands, the worst region on this measure. London pupils took 26.7% of places at Oxbridge from 2017 to 2019 while constituting 13% of school leavers.  In the West Midlands, 5.7% of pupils were offered places during that period.  They made up 9.3% of school leavers.

Reasons for success

We are more than familiar with the barriers to success but less cognisant with the factors that determine why these institutions are successful.   While I will not pretend to know all the answers and will, like Jason and his argonauts, continue searching for the Golden Fleece, here are some indicators on how schools and academies may be able to replicate work being done at these academies.

(1)        At the top of my list is good teaching, which in turn leads to good learning.  James Handscombe, the headteacher at Harris Westminster, stated that good teaching and selecting of pupils who thrive on an intellectual challenge were crucial – far more important than money.  Given that the rank and file of our state schools do not have a choice of selecting the intellectual crème da la crème, they must rely on excellent teaching and learning.

(2)        The next important feature is hard cash, which is in short supply at schools and academies.   Most A level pupils receive 15 hours of lessons a week.   At Harris Westminster they have a diet of teaching and learning for 23 hours weekly.  How so?  Government funding is topped up with an extra £1,000 per head per year from the academy’s sponsors and endless fundraising.

“There are some big barriers in exporting this sort of education outside London and the first one is finance. Post-16 education in this country is totally underfunded and we are topping it up considerably,” Handscombe told The Times reporters.

“That money is not going on gold-plated swimming pools. Government funding is predicated on 15 hours a week — that is just not enough and that’s where the hole is. That is your problem, and London has an advantage because there’s a lot more money here so we can raise it.”

The London Academy of Excellence (LAE) in Stratford, is sponsored by two elite private schools and a bank.  It also has energetic fundraising by the parent body. The total amount raised is equivalent to £1,500 per pupil per year.

Richard Cairns, the headteacher of Brighton College, said that he is keen for this model to be used in the Midlands and North England. He said: “We imagine that it could be an important focus for communities in the Red Wall constituencies, providing springboards of opportunity for deprived youngsters.” However, raising the money is a big ask and he is keen for the government to provide financial support.  This is unlikely, given that we are already £230 billion overspent on the national budget, thanks to Covid-19.

(3)        The third issue is selection.   All four institutions – thanks to the demand for places – are selective.   The other two criteria they use are, however, potential and motivation.

Bright youngsters are together at one institution.  They egg and motivate one another.  A teacher can pitch her/his lesson at one, high level.  Mixed ability classes just do not exist.

(4)        The fourth factor responsible for successes are the expectations of teachers, the parents of pupils and the support from charities.   Sehrish Mahmood, 19, who lives in the West Midlands, is the daughter of a mother born in England and a father from Pakistan.  She is studying law at Cambridge. Sehrish told reporters that she would have struggled in the sixth form at the Ormiston Forge Academy, if she had not been supported by the Access Project, a charity.

She explained: “From my school no one had ever got into Oxbridge before. If I’m completely honest, I think I was very hesitant to apply to Cambridge in the beginning. That came from a lack of understanding and various preconceptions I had about the university . . . that there was a certain type of student that went to Cambridge and I was probably the exact opposite in terms of my background.

“Even things like my ethnicity, my postcode, I thought they might look at it and say no. Now it seems absurd. I got in, but back then being in Year 12, being naive, lacking confidence, I thought there were barriers to even applying. The thought of me getting in even whilst I was applying just seemed like I was entertaining something that would never even happen.”

While at Cambridge, Sehrish now helps more pupils get to Oxbridge by giving them an understanding of the application process.

(5)        The fifth factor is inspirational leadership.   All the four institutions mentioned above have headteachers who spark in the children a love for learning and inspire their staff to follow their lead.

(6)        Finally, but by no means the least, is inertia.   If a school or academy has not had a track record of success, there is a tendency for it to bounce along at the bottom of the ocean.    Those that are successful find it easier to maintain high standards, though they have, undoubtedly, to continue striving. Successful institutions can call on alumni to talk to present pupils and motivate them.   New teachers are mentored by the experienced ones who have the glow of success radiating around them.

The big issue is transforming the denominator of failure into the numerator of success.  How does any institution do that?   First, one needs superhuman effort.  Second is belief in the pupils.  It may not be the case that all youngsters have illimitable potential.  However, they do have potential.  Teachers need to find the key to their motivation and change their mindsets from one of “Can’t” to the other of “Can do”.

In the 1980s and 1990s, London had a lousy reputation of poor pupil performance.   There were excuses galore, chief of which was the poverty of families living in multi-ethnic and multilingual milieus. And then, in 2003, the Labour government created the London Challenge, a programme of change, consulting, of course, with local authorities. Its objectives were to improve standards and reduce the achievement gap between the rich and poor.   The London Challenge encompassed five boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Newham, Lewisham, Hackney and Westminster.

Sir Tim Brighouse, former Chief Education Officer in Oxfordshire and then Birmingham, Professor of Education at Keel University and finally, Commissioner and Chief Adviser of London Schools from 2002 to 2007, was charged to lead and provide the inspiration for the project.

When reflecting on the success of the project, Brighouse mentioned that there were four questions that he needed to answer to be successful.

The first was: “Was there an essential ingredient?”  His answer was that teachers and school leaders had to be driven by moral purpose – “the certainty of pupils’ success that brooks no denial”.  This creates the right culture.

The second was: “Are there other factors which acted as exceptional catalysts?”  His answer was as follows: “The exceptional factors were the Family of Schools Data base, the carefully tailored work by the Challenge advisers and their partners in the boroughs with individual ‘keys to success’ schools, the focus on professional development, the work on teacher recruitment (particularly ‘Teach First’) and retention, the leadership strategy backed by the National College, and the extra resources to lubricate all these changes.”

The third question was: “Were there unique governance arrangements in London?”  He thought that addressing this matter was analogous to solving the Rubik’s cube.  “Nonetheless there was goodwill from all parties,” he remarked, “that carried us through.”

Finally, he wondered whether there were factors which if addressed would have allowed even more success.   His answer was a resounding “Yes.”  He was aware of opportunities he missed and “of not getting the right people in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, in the right way”.  He observed, being the moral person that he was and is, “The fault for all that went wrong is hard personally to avoid. The credit for what went right – and there was much – must lie with the school staff themselves and those working closely with them, not just the advisers of the London Challenge team but in the boroughs themselves.”

Sir Tim’s inspired leadership has been the model for other London schools and academies, which those in the rest of the country would do well to replicate. It is significant that the London Challenge covered five inner city boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Newham, Lewisham, Hackney and Westminster.  The four institutions mentioned above are in two of these five boroughs. Brampton, the London Academy of Excellence and New Collegiate Sixth Form Centre are in Newham, and the fourth, Harris Westminster, is (of course) in Westminster.

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