'The students are putting a lot of trust in the college'

Head acknowledges pressure on school founded by Eton et al

Irena Barker

From a distance, you could easily mistake Robert Wilne for a sixth-former. His energetic manner, eager eyes and preppy dress give a boyish impression that belies his 37 years.

Of course, Wilne is not a schoolboy but a headmaster, appointed to lead one of the highest-profile free-school projects to date.

The London Academy of Excellence is being set up by eight independent schools with the aim of helping talented young people from the deprived East London borough of Newham get into top universities. It is as if all Michael Gove's fantasies have come true.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, it has not been without controversy. The sixth-form college, opening in September, has already been accused of creaming off the best A-level candidates from existing providers and creating competition in an area that already has well-rated sixth-form provision. It is, after all, selective (selection is banned only up to key stage 3).

Moreover, the involvement of schools such as Eton and Hampton, together with lead school Brighton College, has sparked suggestions that the project is a paternalistic takeover of state education by the private sector.

Against this background of political tension, it is easy to see why the college appointed the friendly, unthreatening Wilne.

He attended the independent Red House School in Cleveland before gaining six A grades at A level at Westminster School in London. His academic CV makes exhausting reading for mere mortals, but he doesn't exude the faintest air of superiority.

A first-class Cambridge graduate who chose to be a maths teacher despite it being "a killer at parties", Wilne has been head of Highgate School's charitable activities for the past three years.

Certainly, Wilne does not appear combative - for example, he says he is determined to have a "heart-to-heart" with one of the leading critics of the project, Eddie Playfair, principal of the nearby Newham Sixth Form College. "There's a conversation to be had," Wilne tells TES. "It's perfectly understandable that he has reservations about another provider coming in."

He insists, like others involved in free schools, that the college should be seen not as competition but as a "choice", because 47 per cent of 16-year-olds go out of the borough for their A-level education.

Wilne is also keen to dispel the idea that the school amounts to a takeover by elitist independents. "Eton is not moving to the East End," he says, although he admits that the new college will benefit from an English teacher on 60 per cent secondment from Eton.

But Wilne's evident ability to manage a PR message will, of course, be only a sideline to his role as founding headteacher of a new school.

Lured by the promise of the college's motto - the blunt equation "Hard work + Aspiration = Place at a Top University" - about 398 applicants attended assessment days, of which 358 were from Newham schools.

The college aims to get 15 students annually into Oxbridge by 2015 - a better performance than two-thirds of private schools.

While it is ambitious, it is clearly not elitist when it comes to its entry requirements. Minimum grades for entry are five Bs at GCSE, even though that would be unlikely to win pupils a place at a Russell Group institution.

"If you add up the pupils getting five As, that didn't seem a large enough number, it didn't feel like widening access as much as it should," says Wilne. "It's five Bs, plus colossal ambition and motivation from the students, and that's very different. These are pioneering students who have seen an opportunity to get what they want."

Some, he says, are so ambitious to go to Oxbridge that they are even blinkered about other good universities. "We have to show them the options - that it's not Oxbridge or a job in McDonald's," he says.

All 200 places at the school have now been allocated and offers have gone out to students. If successful, they will choose from a range of just 12 A levels in traditional academic subjects.

Despite this focus on universities and academic rigour, Wilne insists that it is not the be-all and end-all. Helping children to make well-informed choices about their futures and A-level choices, independently of family and societal pressures, is more important, he says. "I feel that going to university is a good thing to do, but if someone chooses not to go for the following 17 really good reasons, that's not a failure, no."

The school has targeted pupils from poorer backgrounds by publicising itself in 11-16 schools in the most deprived areas, but it is not socially engineering its intake by consulting school meals data, for example. "Newham is one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, but we've not excluded applicants from the smarter postcodes," Wilne says. "We plan to build up a picture over the course of time of the social mix to ensure we are achieving what we set out to do."

Wilne's other key task has been to recruit a small team of teachers. Seventeen teaching staff will be employed at the school, including the teaching head, leadership team, teachers seconded from private school partners and new staff. About two-thirds of the staff have been recruited from state schools.

Like many headteachers, Wilne still needs another maths teacher, although the rest of the posts are already filled. He seems excited about the appointment of a recent Cambridge graduate without a teaching qualification, who will take on modern languages.

This teacher will receive extensive support and training from Caterham School, one of the independent schools in the project. "It's not true that not being qualified means you're not a good teacher," Wilne says.

The other challenge of the job will be running the school - and a full programme of extracurricular activities - from the unusual location of a Stratford office building surrounded by ornamental palm trees. "In some ways, it's better than a new building," Wilne says. "For example, there are loads of ladies' and gents' toilets."

In the absence of purpose-built facilities, sport, which will be managed by the City of London School, will be patched together using the area's local facilities.

But concerns over the quirky location are the least of Wilne's worries. His obvious excitement about the project is coupled with a massive sense of responsibility. "The students, their parents and carers are putting a huge amount of trust in the college and I don't want to betray that trust," he says. "I want to justify it. I have a lot to deliver."


Age: 37

1982-90: Red House School, Cleveland

1990-92: Westminster School, London (A levels in history, Latin, English, physics, maths and further maths)

1992-95: First class degree in maths from Trinity College, Cambridge

1996-97: Maths teacher at Sherborne School, Dorset

1997-2000: Maths teacher at Westminster School, London

2000-present: Highgate School, London (2000-05, head of maths; 2006-present, senior management team member; 2008-present, director of Sir Roger Cholmeley's Charity)

Outside work: Chair of governors at Devonshire Hill Primary in Tottenham, London, since 2008

Interests: Films, running, recreational mathematics

Family: With partner Michael since 1997.

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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