Looming over a tangle of railway lines and traffic islands in London’s Stratford is a former council office building now known as the “East End Eton”. A block of green and yellow-framed glass and concrete, the London Academy of Excellence is a world away from the manicured grounds and Tudor brick of its nickname-sake – but its pupils’ results are not far off.
The first sixth-form college established under the Conservatives’ free school policy, set up by seven private schools in 2012, the LAE is celebrating its record number of Oxbridge places – 22 students received offers this year (that’s one-in-ten year 13s). More than half will be the first generation in their family to go to university – with one whose first language is Albanian.
LAE students celebrate results. Photo: Courtesy of LAE
The flagship of former education secretary Michael Gove’s reforms, LAE prides itself on telling a social mobility success story about the local borough, Newham, which has London’s second highest poverty rate. In 2015, Newham ranked as England’s 25th most deprived borough – a huge and rapid improvement from second place in 2010, but inequality persists. It has one of the highest GCSE attainment gaps in London between its disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers.
“The whole social mobility agenda is very real to me,” says Scott Baker, headmaster of LAE since last September. We meet in an almost surgically clean, white classroom off a corridor (which are all illustrated with famous “independent thinkers”; I spot Srinivasa Ramanujan and Coco Chanel on my way round).
Baker most recently taught at an academy and a selective girls’ grammar, but spent nearly 20 years working in east London state comprehensives, where he himself was educated. He was one of the first from Robert Clack School in Dagenham to go to Cambridge, and the first in his family to go to university.
“The whole LAE mission really resonates with me,” he tells me across a long classroom table. “I recognise a lot of that in the students we have here.”
Six partner private schools, including Eton, provide the school mock Oxbridge interviews and other workshops, exchange visits, resources and even teachers – two English teachers from Eton work at LAE one day a week.
LAE students walk in front of the Olympic tower in Stratford. Photo: Courtesy of LAE
One evening last December, pupils had to take the train to Windsor and make their own way around Eton’s grounds, navigating through “strange buildings in the pitch dark” to teachers’ living rooms and kitchens to replicate turning up at Oxford or Cambridge for your interview, says Madeleine St Amour, the assistant head who focuses on university admissions. They were interviewed by Eton teachers (“subject masters”).
“They offered me an accurate expectation of what the real interview would be like,” says Raluca Popan, who has an offer to study History and Modern Languages at Homerton College, Cambridge. She moved from Romania with her family three years ago, and did her GCSEs at a mixed state comprehensive in Newham. She will be the first in her family to go to university.
“In our mock interviews, the feedback I got was very, very useful because I learned certain techniques, such as poise or maybe my intonation or the pitch of my voice, which previously I had not been taught,” she recalls.
Having built up this confidence in unfamiliar surroundings, Popan enjoyed the real thing. “I had to get on the train, I had to get off, I had to find my college – I just feel like a real adult!” she laughs. “It was such a huge privilege to be able to speak to people who are clear masters in what they’re doing.”
“I knew very little about university altogether to be honest with you,” adds Francesca Smith, who has a place at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to study Geography, and came to LAE from a mixed academy school in Loughton, Essex. “I didn’t realise the magnitude [of Oxbridge] or even that different universities had different levels of prestigiousness… It just seemed like a cloudy sort of dream, and coming here definitely demystified it.”
LAE benefits from £500,000 of yearly funding from HSBC, which goes towards sport and extracurricular activities, ranging from mindfulness to still-life drawing. A recent lecture series at the school saw particular interest in outspoken drug expert Professor David Nutt.
All this extra cash and private school help means students have more time at school; the average student here does 760 hours of guided learning a year (compared to the sixth form minimum of 540 hours). But they also put in extra time. To prepare for her Cambridge interview, Popan used her free periods every Friday afternoon to go through practice questions with a friend.
Today, the library is packed, and fiercely silent. The canteen – known as “the agora” – is more raucous but still focused; pupils pore over a giant poker game that has started on one end of a table. The dress code is smart business attire, and the boys wear yellow and navy striped ties.
While making impressive headlines, the school’s methods are controversial. It has highly selective entrance criteria. Applicants need minimum five 7s at GCSE (the equivalent of A grades under the old system, which changed in 2017), including in their chosen A-Level subjects, with minimums of 6s in maths and English. It’s a big ask in a borough like Newham, where 56.1 per cent of state school pupils get five or more A*-G grade GCSEs including English and Maths (below London’s average of 59.7 per cent).
Prospective pupils must also attend an interview, which is scored as part of the application process.
LAE is part of “a new breed of sixth form provider” – 16-19 free schools unusually selective in their intake – which has emerged in recent years, according to the Sixth Form Colleges Association. A spokesperson says there are now around 30 or 40 of these “either up-and-running or in the pipeline” across the country.
The LAE building in Stratford Photo: Courtesy of LAE
LAE’s teachers are aware of the thorny selection issue. “I wouldn’t countenance selection at 11 personally,” says deputy head Claudia Harrison. “[But] I think by the time people are 16, they’re ready to make decisions about their future.”
Baker adds that state comprehensive sixth forms cannot support students who are “aspiring for those very competitive places with the same degree of focus”. “They’re not equipped and don’t have that capacity to offer the tailored advice the students get here,” he says.
While the social drawbacks of selecting at 11 halted the grammar school system, selecting at 16 has never quite come under the same scrutiny – and there’s always a degree of selection for courses past 16.
Yet undoubtedly if you pick the best pupils, you will get the best results.
Baker argues that his school adds value for already high-achieving students. Its Progress 8 score (a government measure of students’ progress) is 0.48, which puts it in the top 5 per cent of sixth form schools and colleges in England.
But not everyone’s convinced.
“Obviously when you’re very selective, you will get very high league table scores and you will be able to argue that you’re excellent,” says Eddie Playfair, the principal of NewVic, another impressive sixth form college nearby in east London’s Plaistow (I reported from it three years ago).
Outside NewVic. Photo: Courtesy of NewVic
NewVic is a traditional, comprehensive sixth form, which has offered vocational as well as the academic A-Level route available at LAE for 25 years – such a broad range of courses, you can get lost walking around between its broadcast journalism hub and mirrored dance studios.
It has around 2,500 pupils to LAE’s 460, and doesn’t do what Playfair calls “super-selection”. Nevertheless, it’s academically strong: it sent 661 students to university last year (96 to Russell Group universities, including one Cambridge offer), and nearly 7,000 over the past decade, with over 400 going to Russell Group universities in the past five years.
“I’ve always been critical of the trend towards super-selective sixth forms, particularly when there are good comprehensive sixth forms in an area already,” says Playfair, who was stung when LAE’s former head John Weeks suggested in 2014 that it was the only place in Newham to offer the traditional A-Level subjects required at top universities (NewVic has always offered these subjects).
Four years ago, LAE was the focus of a local scandal, when some students who didn’t meet its standards were ejected after year 12, and ended up at Playfair’s school. This story was echoed recently at St Olave’s grammar school, which was culling pupils midway through sixth form if they weren’t on track for As and A*s.
Although I can’t get retention figures, LAE’s most recent Ofsted finds “the proportion of students who stay on their two-year programmes is very high”, but the teachers do sit down with every student at the end of year 12 and review how they’re doing.
“Obviously if they haven’t got a good mark in their end of year result, it’s not always a good basis to take on to A-Level,” says Harrison. A “handful” of pupils leave, she admits, “and some make the decision that they want to go somewhere else”.
This practice is uncomfortable for advocates of the comprehensive system, and it remains unclear how selection at 16 will affect social mobility. “It’s one of those frontiers of social mobility that hasn’t really been thought through,” says Lee Elliot Major, the chief executive of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust. “It’s the missing bit – and the most interesting bit.”
Particularly in places like London, an academic selective system at 16 is now emerging, says Major, “and that means you get social sorting happening at the same time, and I think that is probably bad for social mobility… As a rule, you are trying to ensure that the education system does not stratify socially.”
A stairwell in NewVic. Photo: Courtesy of NewVic
In an attempt to counter this, LAE uses different criteria to rank applicants (of whom there are ten to each place). Those in care or eligible for free school meals automatically qualify, whether from Newham or not, and half the school’s intake has to be from Newham. Two-thirds of its pupils are the first in their families to go to university, and 25 per cent were eligible for free school meals at 15 (above Newham’s average, which is 23.5 per cent in secondary schools. The average sixth form college has 11 per cent free school meal eligibility).
Most of the rest live in neighbouring boroughs, and some as far as Essex, Kent and south London. The current 460 sixth formers come from over 100 different secondary schools, which I’m told are “mostly comprehensive”, though there’s no breakdown available. Baker has since admitted to keeping a “close eye” on the school’s population to avoid affluent families taking advantage.
Sixth forms are the biggest victims of underfunding in the whole education sector. Funding for 16-19-year-olds fell by 14 per cent in real terms between 2010 and 2015, and is expected to face an 8 per cent cut between 2016 and 2020. According to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the impact of cuts since 2010 means 66 per cent of sixth form colleges have had to drop courses.
Academy sixth forms and the new free schools like LAE have other funding streams, which mean smaller class sizes and more time to dedicate to their students.
Playfair argues that money and resources from places like HSBC and private schools would have a wider benefit at bigger colleges, where they could help more students than the high-flying few (the average sixth form college has 1,806 students, whereas the average academy sixth form has 222). He has already built a partnership with Oxford’s Wadham College, and opened it out to sixth formers from other local schools and colleges – and is similarly keen to collaborate with LAE. “It’s clearly a very good provider,” he says. “For me, the issues are systemic issues – it’s not having a go at one institution.”
While students bounce down LAE’s corridors towards the tail-end of Wednesday afternoon, the education debate outside is growing louder around the schools of Newham and beyond. Boutique sixth forms spring up and turn to the private sector for support, and comprehensive colleges stagger through a funding chasm: both symptoms of a 16-19 system that has been neglected for too long.