Courtesy of the London Academy of Excellence.
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A tale of two sixth forms: inside the East End Eton at the heart of Britain’s education divide

What does the new breed of “super-selective” free schools mean for social mobility in deprived boroughs like Newham?

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.

“I knew very little about university altogether to be honest with you”

“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.”

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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.

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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.

“By the time people are 16, they’re ready to make decisions about their future”

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.

“Obviously when you’re very selective, you will get very high scores” 

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’s a frontier of social mobility that hasn’t been thought through”

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).

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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.”

“You are trying to ensure that the education system does not stratify socially”

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.

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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.

“The issues are systemic – it’s not having a go at one institution”

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.