London Academy of Excellence (Highgate School)
LAE is a free school set up by a number of independent schools in Newham, east London. The initial idea came from Joan Deslandes, head of Kingsford Community School nearby. She had met the head of Brighton College, Richard Cairns, on a trip to China, and they already had a scheme whereby Brighton College offered sixth form scholarships to a small number of Kingsford students. However, this scheme could do little to help with a big issue in Newham – the fact that A-level results and university entry were generally poor in the borough. Many students had to leave the borough for their sixth form education. In 2011 only three students living Newham went to Oxford or Cambridge universities.
The school was set up under Michael Gove’s free schools initiative and opened in 2012 with 200 pupils in Year 12.
It had three aims:
1. To increase the supply of A-level places in Newham.
2. To increase the quality of A-level results and thus university entry.
3. To establish a broad approach to education based on what we see in independent schools including sport.
To get going we needed:
1. Support from Brighton College who provided their second master, Simon Smith, to manage the project and their Bursar, Paul Westbrook, to plan the finances.
2. Support from Kingsford Community School – Joan was able to persuade many of her students and parents to sign the ‘initial expression of interest form’, she provided many students, and she continues to give us excellent advice based on her local knowledge.
3. Support from HSBC who not only give us a large annual grant but allowed us to use their offices in Canary Wharf for open days before the Academy was built.
4. Support from City of London Boys’ School, Eton College, Highgate School, Caterham School, Forest School, Roedean, and, more recently, University College School. These, plus Brighton College, each agreed to support one or more subjects at the school. This support ranged from lending a member of staff full time to visits from a member of staff two or three times a year. This was important because in the early years many of the teachers at LAE were quite inexperienced.
The Academy appointed a large governing body who included:
The retiring head master of Harrow, Barnaby Lenon, who became chairman of governors; the retired High Master of St Paul’s; seven current head teachers; the Brighton College bursar, their retired second master and their deputy head; Three university lecturers including Paul Teulon, head of admissions at King’s College, London who is chair of the Education Committee and brings great local knowledge as well as university admissions expertise. Ian Archer is an Oxford don and gives a great deal of help with Oxbridge entry.A lawyer, a media expert, a local parent and a representative from HSBC were also involved.
One important underlying factor was that the independent schools involved were keen to be involved in the state sector but wished to do so in a way which made the most of their expertise. All felt that it was A-level teaching and university admissions where they were best equipped to make a difference.
Another very important consideration was the issue of which subjects to offer. It was agreed that, in order to maximise the prospects for university entry, these should be what the Russell Group call ‘facilitating subjects’ – hard subjects which best support entry to the widest range of degrees in top universities: Maths, English Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Economics, Religious Studies, French, Spanish, Mandarin. Many pupils also do a dissertation – the Extended Project Qualification.
Setting up the Academy posed a number of significant problems:
1. The Academy was given the go-ahead in October 2011 to open in 2012. This did not leave enough time to acquire and prepare a building. In the event the Academy leased part of an office block from Newham council for 10 years. The work to convert this building started in 2012 and was incomplete by the time the Academy opened. In the first term, therefore, some lessons had to take place in Newham Town Hall.
2. The absence of any track record or, indeed, a building to look at, meant that the first cohort of students and their parents had to opt for LAE on the basis of promises alone. We were lucky to have Robert Milne as our first head, coming from Highgate School. He was excellent at marketing.
3. Many free schools start with 25 pupils and one teacher. We were the first sixth-form-only free school and the 12 subjects meant that we had to start with a minimum of 25 teachers plus support staff. It was this which meant we needed a minimum of 200 students a year.
Once we were under way a number of other problems arose:
1. Because we were mainly independent school-based, we had no experience of Ofsted. Our first Ofsted inspection came early in the second year. This required us to set up systems to collect large amounts of data not normally collected by independent schools.
2. Money – our government funding proved to be totally inadequate and we would not have been able to continue without the HSBC grant.
3. Students can apply to as many state sixth forms as they wish, with no commitment to any. So, with no experience, we had no idea how many places to offer. In the second year, in fact, we offered too few places and had to find extra students in the two weeks before the term began.
4. In year 1 many of the pupils we took were academically weak and left after their AS levels to pursue ‘easier’ courses, including A-level subjects we do not offer, at other schools.
5. As with many schools in London, finding good staff is difficult.
We have an extensive co-curricula programme based on the LAE Diploma. This aims to:
- Cultivate the skills of self-confidence, self-discipline, communication, teamwork, leadership and service
- Recognise and celebrate achievement beyond the classroom including in sports, music, drama, House competitions and volunteering
- Promote good citizenship and fundamental British values
- Support personal statements when applying to universities
- Underpin our ethos of independent thinking.
The most popular activities outside the classroom are sport, music and drama. There is a House system and House competitions help develop all these activities as well as debating.
1. Popularity: we had over 2000 applicants for 200 places in 2015.
2. Provocation: the local authority reacted to our presence by setting up their own sixth form Academy on very similar lines to LAE.
3. An example followed by others: in 2013 the Harris group set up Harris Westminster sixth form academy modelled on LAE.
4. Results: In our first year we doubled the number of pupils in the whole borough going to Oxford and Cambridge. In 2015 seven out of ten A-level grades were A*-B, the majority of the students going on to Russell Group universities. In 2015 the Academy became the Sunday Times school of the year. Click here to read the news coverage.
By Barnaby Lenon, former head at Harrow School and chair of governors at the LAE. Mr Lenon is also governor at another state school and is chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC).