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Private vision of a state academy

An independent girls' headteacher is to help shape a new super school in Hackney, reports Alison Brace

It would be easy for Bernice McCabe to blow her own trumpet: she has taken two schools to the top of the exam league tables - one state and one private.

That is not all: she is director of the Prince of Wales's summer schools for teachers and is now trying to pull off her biggest challenge yet - to help set up the Government's new pound;30 million academy in Hackney, east London.

But it is hard to get the headteacher of the pound;9,000-a-year North London Collegiate school to take any credit. "There's nothing I do on my own," she said. "I am entirely dependent on the people who work with me."

Her staff, however, have other ideas: Mrs McCabe is the school. She lives and breathes it six days a week and expects the same commitment from staff.

"She treats us the same way she treats the students," said one colleague.

"It's assumed that you can do great things, that you will flourish with responsibility. You end up exceeding your boundaries."

It is an impressive testimony for someone who more or less fell into teaching. At 17, with 11 O-levels and four A-levels she studied English literature at university in Bristol, her home city, married while still a student and stayed on to do a postgraduate certificate in education. She went to observe a primary school for two weeks and loved it.

"Nothing made me feel as positive about what I did and the difference I could make as being in that primary school in south Bristol."

Being the first private school head to be asked by Downing Street to act as "academic sponsor" of an academy seems to have brought unwelcome attention for someone who prefers to keep her head down and get on with the job.

Newspaper articles have questioned why a "snob school" head has been asked to turn Sir Thomas Abney primary in Hackney into a 1,600-pupil super-school for children aged three to 18. But to describe her as just the head of a snob school is unfair.

Before joining North London Collegiate in 1997 she spent 23 years in the state sector - 16 in mixed comprehensives in Bristol and London, and seven as head of Chelmsford county high, a girls' grammar school which is never far from the top of the league tables.

"Obviously we are very privileged here, but we are not a rich public school," said Mrs McCabe. "We have pupils from every kind of background."

The pupils speak 23 different languages at home, and 14 per centare on bursaries or scholarships. Her views on selection have changed over the years (she is now pro), but her basic philosophy has remained the same.

"What we try to do here is to raise pupils' expectations of themselves and teachers' expectations of the pupils."

Her approach will be no different in Hackney where if the consultation process is successful, the academy will open in 2007. Mrs McCabe and her two deputies, Oliver Blond and Barbara Pomeroy, are working closely with staff at Sir Thomas Abney school.

She will help appoint the head, assist with the curriculum and help shape the school's ethos.

"This is very much about building on what Thomas Abney has achieved, it's not about imposing something on them," she said.

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