Sometimes, when you walk into a school, you can feel an edginess, as if there’s a brief period of lockdown and control until the bell goes and the inmates start bouncing off the corridor walls again. Yesterday, I visited a school in east London utterly unlike that. Every gate and door was held open. Default “Hello sirs”. The students, aged 11 to 18, seemed sparky, friendly, thoughtful.
I met tomorrow’s doctors and Nasa scientists, dentists, philosophers, business people and politicians. Eastbury Sixth Form in Barking, which along with Dagenham has the highest unemployment rate in the capital, is a super state school success story: it has a 100 per cent A-level pass rate, 72 per cent A*-C grades, vocational courses recognised for excellence, and more than 90 per cent of the sixth-formers go to university. It has been improving over the last five years under the leadership (“outstanding” – Ofsted) of headteacher David Dickson and head of sixth form Steve Sumner.
I was there for Robert Peston’s charity Speakers for Schools, which provides state schools with talks from “inspiring, industry-leading figures” for free. Unfortunately for Eastbury’s sixth-formers they ended up with me, but they were extremely generous with their time and questions while I rambled on about the media, society and university.
Although the statistics show this school in a very favourable light, the key word you keep hearing from staff and students is “ethos”, spelt out by the staff to students as: “To help you develop as an individual and become a young person who realises their potential to become an adult of significance.”
The sixth-formers are told: “You should wear a smart, professional outfit on a daily basis. Ask yourself the question when you look in the mirror: would I employ this person?”
Mr Sumner has tried to create the atmosphere of a mini university. On top of the curriculum, students can join the young enterprise group (working as a team to create, pitch and sell a product), the Brilliant Club (the ablest pupils are stretched through tutoring by PhD students at top universities), undertake extended projects and go on university open days – the first chance, for a handful of them, to leave the city of their birth. Eastbury teams have won the national debating contest, reached the school poetry final, and been chosen to represent England in the Futsal (5-a-side indoor football) world championships in Sardinia in April.
Could our Education Secretary Michael Gove learn more from this school than he could from his colleagues’ recollections of Eton?