A touch of Eton in the East End
Robert Wilne looks a little thinner and more tired than the last time we met. But rather like a parent with a new baby, he also has a joyful look about him. Indeed, launching the London Academy of Excellence (LAE) - the new free-school sixth-form college he leads in the borough of Newham - has been somewhat akin to giving birth. And with the headmasters of eight of the country's top private schools watching over him like concerned doctors, he's certainly felt the pressure to deliver.
As well as overseeing the physical preparation of the building and appointing staff, the shoestring budget means many of the niggling admin tasks have also fallen on his shoulders. "The printer toner supplier didn't recognise us as a school. They thought we were a prankster or a jihadist cell," says Wilne, with the sigh of a man who has a thousand things to do and a thousand jobsworths to deal with.
Set up by a coterie of independent schools with the express aim of propelling bright Newham sixth-formers into Russell Group universities - and getting 15 students a year into Oxbridge by 2015 - the LAE was a controversial proposal. Some critics claimed the college would poach the best students from the area's existing institutions. Others said it was a paternalistic venture by upper-class schoolmasters on a mission in a poor borough. But parents and teenagers rushed to last year's open days like hungry students to a free buffet.
Clearly enough people in the borough were willing to "buy in" to its promise of university success: the LAE opened in September with 200 students, 50 more than first intended, and if everything goes to plan it will expand to 400 next year.
Housed in a former office building in Stratford, East London, the college's appearance is somewhat unprepossessing. While its house system pays tribute to its backers - the first four houses are named after Highgate, Eton, Brighton and Forest schools - its surroundings are a far cry from a verdant Home Counties public school.
The Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee Tube line skirt the back of the building and a vast traffic island with a sculpture made from rusting railway rails springs from the dual carriageway in front. Through the drizzle, the shapes of iconic Olympic venues and the curling form of the Orbit tower can be made out beyond the railway station.
A small plastic sign that reads "London Academy of Excellence" hangs from the dark blue glass office block, giving it the faint air of a discount private tuition centre. Inside, though, things start to look up quite significantly. After stepping through a small temporary reception area and climbing several sets of stairs, visitors reach the newly installed classrooms and corridors of the fourth floor. Throughout the Olympic Games, construction workers beavered away converting a grim open-plan office into a modern school, with "soft whites, dove greys and zingy accent colours", as Wilne (who chose them personally) explains. The chairs and tables are the same fresh white, with upholstery in red, magenta, green and teal.
"I wanted to create a place of transition from school to university," says the head. "I just didn't want those plastic laminate wood-effect tables and plastic chairs that you have in schools; I wanted it to feel as if they were at work somewhere like HSBC or (law firm) Slaughter and May." In keeping with this workplace-like feel, students are expected to wear dark office clothes and have an equally serious approach to lessons.
Students cheerily tell TES of their long days, and evenings and weekends packed with study. The day starts at 8.20am and lessons go on until 4pm, followed by extra-curricular activities until 5.15pm. On Tuesday, much of the afternoon is dedicated to sport, common in the timetables of the college's private school backers.
One boy, Nabi, an Oxford hopeful, claims that he works until midnight during the week; others say that three hours' work a night is normal.
"We prefer to call it `prep', not `homework'," says Wilne. "It's more than just borrowing phrases from the independent sector; it's about it being preparation for the next lesson." The word "work" implies something you are doing for someone else, that you are obliged to do, he adds. Like- minded classmates.
And it pays to be prepared: strolling along the corridors and peeping through classroom doors reveals some pretty challenging lessons, in which discursive teaching methods, in small classes, are key. No pupil escapes under this format: "Teachers used to give us a textbook and ask us to answer the questions, but here they talk and encourage us to respond. They need to get an answer from us even if it's wrong," says the shy-looking Marjana, a pupil with unemployed parents who hopes to study medicine or pharmacology.
"It was a big unknown: how the sixth-formers would respond to the Socratic teaching style," says Wilne. "But they have responded really well."
He says some students have to get used to no longer being top of their class now they are in such a high-performing environment. "A lot of them would have been on gifted and talented schemes in their schools, and some of them will find themselves in the middle here. It can be debilitating and demoralising, but I think they are liking the challenge of climbing back up and the stimulus of being surrounded by like-minded people."
He adds that, for some students, this is their first opportunity to be open about their enthusiasm for their subject - something not always "cool" in an ordinary state school. "They can come out and say: `I'm a mathematician.' They can say it loud and proud," says Wilne, himself a Cambridge maths graduate.
Students don't always come from families who understand their ambitions, he suggests, so it is useful for them to be surrounded at school by people who do.
Although one of the sixth form's aims is to offer a leg-up to students from deprived backgrounds, it does not operate quotas and good GCSE results are the key to being admitted. Wilne aims to keep a close eye on the socio-economic mix as time goes by, to ensure the college is taking in a good proportion of disadvantaged students.
In this opening term, the students themselves are an extremely mixed bunch, and some even have experience in private schools themselves.
While Marjana's parents do not work, Krish's dad is a restaurant operations manager and his mother is a private banker. He arrived in England from India in 2004 and now enjoys dual citizenship. He spent several years at a private Hindu boarding school in Leicester, but had been state-educated at Langdon School in East Ham since Year 9. He is hoping to become a computer engineer.
Confident and chatty Nabi also spent Year 7 at a private school, but left after a year because he was the only black student and found the other pupils "too quiet". He was then educated at Kingsford Community School, a comprehensive in Beckton. Interested in economics and business, he wants to eventually head up the family shipping firm.
Misbah, whose father is a shopkeeper, went to Langdon School and is studying chemistry, biology, maths and geography. She hopes to become a doctor.
All were encouraged to apply to LAE by enthusiastic headteachers, including Joan Deslandes, the head of Kingsford, who worked alongside Brighton College and other private schools to launch the project.
Unlike opponents of the free school, the 16-year-olds say the branding of Eton and other independents is extremely attractive. "It's a very good thing that the private schools are behind this; they are good names," says Nabi, to nods from his fellow students. "The head of Eton came to the open day, to show he was backing us. That was good," he adds.
The students tell TES that another advantage of LAE is that it is in the borough of Newham. Because of its high ranking on the deprivation index, many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, are carrying out extensive outreach projects and forming links with schools. "We were told that it is a good idea to stay in Newham, to improve our chances of getting into a good university," says Krish.
And what of the teaching staff? Wilne has assembled a team of 18 full-time teachers, and two part-time English teachers have been seconded from Eton College and Forest School in northeast London. Another teacher, seconded from City of London School for boys, takes charge of extra-curricular activities and sports. None of the private schools is contributing money.
All the staff seem excited to be involved in a small "start-up" school that will reap tangible results after just two years. The appeal of working with keen, intelligent students who are not there by dint of their parents' bank balances is also appealing.
Tom Sawbridge, English teacher and assistant head responsible for teaching and learning, studied at Oxford and entered the profession via Teach First. "I wanted to be part of a team where it would have a big impact quickly," he says. "We have had to work very hard, but not a day has gone by where I haven't felt it is a privilege to work here."
Fiona Docherty, a Manchester history graduate and former Teach First participant who starts at 6.45am, says: "The students are incredibly enthusiastic; they want to absorb knowledge and skills. I really enjoy having my tutor group. I call them the `pioneers'."
It is clear that everyone at LAE is feeling hopeful as it takes its first baby steps and its students get stuck in to the second half of the first term. Work to renovate the first three floors of the building will be finished in January, in time for next year's expansion. It will even gain a canteen. Whisper it, but the future looks as bright as the magenta staffroom chairs.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
12 - Number of A levels in traditional subjects offered at the London Academy of Excellence.
160 - Number of students studying maths out of a cohort of 200.
400 - Number of students expected to be on roll by September 2013.
5 - Number of GCSE B grades required for entry.
15 - Number of students the LAE aims to get into Oxbridge each year by 2015.
8 - Number of private school backers, each supporting different areas of the curriculum: Brighton College; Eton College; Roedean; City of London School; King's College School, Wimbledon; and Highgate, Forest and Caterham schools.