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The future of state education? Inside LAE, the Eton (and Roedean, and Highgate) of the East End

Eight public schools are in charge of teaching subjects at a new sixth-form academy in one of London’s poorest boroughs

A big clue as to the ethos of the new London Academy of Excellence lies in the job description of its head teacher. Robert Wilne has deliberately styled himself “head master” of the sixth-form school in London’s East End – taking on the title adopted by the leaders of famous public schools such as Highgate and Westminster.

“We’re taking the very best from the independent school sector and the very best from the free-school movement and re-knitting all these together to create a new model of education,” he says in an interview with The Independent.

“I call myself head master – two words – to emphasise this, I suppose, but I wouldn’t be seen dead in a mortar board.”

LAE, as it is known, is a unique type of school, sponsored as it is by eight leading independent schools in the South-east including Eton College and Highgate School. Each of the eight takes responsibility for one subject area of the curriculum. Highgate is in charge of maths while Caterham School takes responsibility for modern languages.

The early indications are that the project is working, with this year’s AS-level students expected to score at least two grades higher on average than would have been predicted by their GCSE grades. There were also 630 applications for the 200 places on offer this September, so the school is expanding its intake to 220 to help meet the demand.

Mr Wilne, a first-time head who was previously in charge of maths teaching at Highgate, is enthusiastic about LAE’s future. “I was given the biggest blank sheet in education and I held all the chalk to fill it in,” he said.

Already the model is catching  on, with other heads interested in  setting up similar ventures in different parts of the country. “I want to see this idea spreading,” Mr Wilne says.

“I see no reason why there shouldn’t be similar schools in Birmingham, Manchester and other parts of the country. There is definitely interest.” He emphasises that LAE is “a sixth-form school”, not a college. The latter offer a range of different opportunities for students, from A-levels to vocational qualifications, whereas LAE offers a very bespoke curriculum.

Its pupils take A-levels in only the 12 subject areas that the elite Russell Group universities single out as those most likely to earn an applicant a place at one of their institutions. It also has a very strict uniform policy – a suit for boys – so that students dress in the manner that would be expected of them once they enter the world of work.

It has a house system, too, with the houses taking the names of the schools sponsoring the institution so there is every chance of a game between Eton and Highgate taking place on the playing fields of the LAE. (Actually, it does not have its own playing fields – situated as it is in the centre of Stratford – but it is almost next door to the Olympic stadium and has put in a bid to use its facilities from the start of the next school year.)

Setting up the school was the brainchild of Richard Cairns, of Brighton College, who already had a twinning arrangement with an 11 to 16 comprehensive in Newham whose brightest pupils were offered scholarships to board at his independent school to study for their A-levels.

It was recognised, though, that this only helped a handful of pupils – and that there was a need to provide more sixth-form opportunities for talented children, many of whom had to go outside Newham to study for A-levels.

Harmanpret Atwal, 17, found out about the school through a leaflet. “I don’t think anybody in my school had heard of it,” he said.

“I brought the leaflet to my school and asked if my head teacher could mention it at assembly.” As a result, around 20 of his fellow pupils applied for a place – 10 of them successfully.

“I looked at other options but nobody seemed able to offer me the subject options I wanted,” he said. “I think if I hadn’t come to LAE I wouldn’t have been able to develop such a deep love of my subjects. When I said what subjects I wanted to do here, nobody batted an eyelid.”

Eleanor Geoghegan, also 17, is one of three students to win a place at a summer school in the US, set up by the Sutton Trust education charity. “It just seemed like a good opportunity to come here,” she said. “I didn’t want to travel outside of the borough for sixth-form – I didn’t want to get up hours earlier and have to travel.

“Most local places I didn’t feel were going to be able to offer me the same level of support that I get here. Everybody here really wants to learn – and as a result there is less disruption than there was at my school.”

LAE is selective in the pupils it chooses, but it has a sophisticated points system to ensure that those who come from disadvantaged areas (determined through their post codes) or go to schools where few pupils go on to further study are given extra points in the selection system. All applicants have to go through an interview process.

Mr Wilne is anxious to stress that the independent sponsors of the school do not support it with any financial aid - it is a state-funded school, pure and simple. What they do is give the school their curricula so teachers can base their lessons around them.

On finance, his first year has been an eye-opener as it sank in that state institutions for 16- to 18-year-olds suffered in terms of funding.

“We have about 47 per cent of our students who were entitled to free school meals at the schools they came from – but you don’t get funding for that post-16,” he says. “That’s £900 per pupil a year I don’t get.”

It also means help with transport costs is restricted when planning school outings – cash which is vital for some of his students.

But with friends in high places supporting his project, Mr Wilne could soon become a very powerful ally in the campaign to secure equal funding for sixth-formers.

House rules: How it works

London Academy of Excellence is a sixth-form school in the East End borough of Newham, where poverty levels are high. It has eight partner schools, all leaders in the private sector: Brighton College, Caterham, City of London (Boys), Eton, Forest School, Highgate, King’s College, Wimbledon, and Roedean.

Each partner school takes responsibility for delivering one area of the curriculum (Highgate takes charge of maths). It also operates a house system, with each house taking the name of a partner school – so pupils at an East London state school could play in an Eton-versus-Brighton College football match.