Mossbourne Academy: A class act that's hard to follow

He may have taken over the running of one of the country's most fêted comprehensives, but Mossbourne Academy's new headteacher doesn't plan to rest on his laurels, he tells Richard Garner

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The Independent Online

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." On the face of it, a reasonable motto for Peter Hughes to have adopted on securing his first headship. He is the man who has succeeded Sir Michael Wilshaw, now chief inspector of schools at Ofsted – the education standards watchdog – as principal of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London.

After all, there is no state school in the country that has been fêted as much as Mossbourne for its success in getting 10 of its sixth-formers offers from Oxbridge last year.

A reasonable motto? Yes, but it would be wrong to characterise the 37-year-old Australian who has donned Sir Michael's mantle as simply riding on the back of his predecessor. Changes are taking place at Mossbourne Academy, which, Mr Hughes reliably informs me, currently has 1,263 pupils. He is a mathematician by trade.

The school is in the process of introducing a lottery system after being besieged by parents wanting places for their children. This September will see 1,500 applicants for just 200 places. At present, the school has a two-tier admissions system, with half the places going to pupils who live in an inner ring surrounding the school – the rest go to an outer ring of 2.3km that covers the entire borough of Hackney and some parts of neighbouring Islington.

"The inner ring used to be a kilometre surrounding the school," he says. "Because of the demand, it got cut back to 500 metres and now I think it's 450." He points out of his window to a nearby park. "If you live on the other side of that, you can't get in on the inner ring."

Most parents accept the lottery, which is to be introduced in 2014, he says, because "it means they all have an equal chance of getting their children into the school. I've had just three letters disagreeing. It's good in that you can't buy a house in the inner ring and be sure of getting your child into the school."

It therefore helps overcome the problem that has beset so many schools, of house prices rising near the school – thus forcing disadvantaged families to look elsewhere for their education.

The year 2014 will be a significant one for the academy: a sister school will be opened nearby, the Mossbourne Victoria Park Academy. "We decided on the name because it's part of Mossbourne, it's in Victoria Park and it's an academy," he said. "We rejected the idea of calling it Mossbourne 2 – that would have run the danger of establishing a pecking order."

The school will provide desperately needed extra secondary school places to cope with a bulge in the birth rate that will hit secondary schools in the borough in a few years' time. "It will allow our sponsor [Sir Clive Bourne] to realise his dream of providing an excellent education for as many Hackney children as possible." The new school will increase the overall number of pupils to 2,000.

Peter Hughes came to Mossbourne as part of the Future Leaders programme, which identifies potential headteacher talent at an early age and provides support and training. He came via spells in teaching in some of London's best known secondary schools – Pimlico and Highgate Wood – plus a spell as an advanced skills teacher.

This year will build on the success of last year – when the first pupils to have had all their secondary education at Mossbourne took their A-levels. Three of the second-year sixth-form have received offers from Oxbridge – including one from Oxford for the first time. (Last year's were all offered places at Cambridge). In addition, 30 per cent of the year group have been offered places at Russell Group universities, the group that represents 24 of the country's leading higher education research institutions. Mr Hughes expects the number to increase next year.

The school identifies its high flyers with Oxbridge potential early on in their secondary schooling, and representatives of the two universities have come to the school to talk to pupils about opportunities. The former pupils who made it to Cambridge last year are keeping in touch with the school as an inspiration to others.

"One of our rowers is actually rowing second boat at Cambridge now. He studied Latin, German and maths and is now rowing for Cambridge."

I mention that the last time I discussed rowing with a head teacher was on a visit to Eton. It is not a sport put on for many of the country's state school pupils. Mossbourne is ideally placed to provide the sport, thanks to a liaison with London Youth Rowing and its proximity to the River Lee.

"There are a small number of students who want to become professional rowers," he says. "At six in the morning you'll find me with them. We'll be out running and then back for a shower before starting school. They have beaten some private schools well known at rowing. Very shortly, they'll be rowing in our own Mossbourne colours. It's a fantastic achievement."

Life at Mossbourne, then, is not just about exam grades and passes. They are, though, important, with study areas for the sixth form where those struggling with their exam syllabus are on the receiving end of what he terms a "Mossbourne suggestion" – that they go and get extra coaching. (The word "suggestion" appears to have a deeper, almost Godfather-like meaning. Very few pupils, I understand, turn their backs on a "Mossbourne suggestion".)

Sir Michael has been happy to stay at arm's length, thus allowing Mr Hughes to get on with the job he has come to love. "It's a special atmosphere – I love it here," he says.

As to the future, he suggests he should be judged on how the school is faring 10 years from now "when the school is still outstanding. That's when I will know I have done a good job.

"There are still things to achieve," he adds. "More students going to Oxbridge, the establishment of a new school and building links with primary schools." It seems that Sir Michael's departure is by no means the end of the Mossbourne success story.