The Conversation: A new sixth form

30th May 2008 at 01:00
William Atkinson is on a mission to extend opportunities to his disadvantaged pupils and spearhead learning in the wider community. He tells Victoria Neumark why setting up a sixth form is integral to his plan
William Atkinson is on a mission to extend opportunities to his disadvantaged pupils and spearhead learning in the wider community. He tells Victoria Neumark why setting up a sixth form is integral to his plan

Q: Why open a sixth form?

A: We want to continue to grow young people. At the moment, we cut off at 16, just as they are emerging as young adults. A sixth form will give us an opportunity to nurture them for two more years.

The notion of post-16 education is not highly developed for many of our pupils when they first arrive. Some who are capable fail to make that transition. We want to give them a sense of what's worth doing, what they can do. We fight against their preconceptions. We want to set their expectations against national targets, not the more limited context of the inner-city.

Q: How will a sixth form fit in with your existing provision?

A: It's all about expectation. We have high expectations for all our pupils. The majority come from challenging circumstances: 60 per cent receive free school meals; more than 60 per cent have special educational needs; more than 70 per cent are from single-parent families; and we have a transient pupil population, with 25-30 per cent mobility each year.

Unlike middle-class children, many of our pupils don't share an understanding of how to achieve in school. Younger pupils will benefit from having older students to act as positive role models and learning mentors, and to add new dimensions to school performing arts.

If you're middle class, going to university can seem like a birthright. Post-16 education helps transform our youngsters' life chances, making them pathfinders in their community.

Q: And why now?

A: For a long time, our parents and those of our local primary schools have been agitating for a sixth form. It's been a constant request at parents' evenings. Our current Year 11s are really keen. They said: "Oh, sir, we would have loved to stay on."

We had an "outstanding" Ofsted report this January; we've got 67 per cent getting five A*-C GCSEs, 43 per cent including maths and English; we're ninth in this year's value-added tables. As a lead school for the ICT diploma for 14- to 19-year-olds, we are already working with local schools, FE and employers. So this seems the right time to develop our range of vocational and academic post-16 courses. It's also an opportunity for staff development, recruitment and retention.

Q: Who will attend?

A: We expect about 130 of our current 180-strong year group to attend in the first year, building up to 260270 in the second. With backing from local business, we hope to develop into a local education centre, catering for a disparate community and sharing courses and students with neighbouring academies and colleges. It's all about being a real neighbourhood school.

Q: How do you see it developing?

A: Our goal is to be second to none in developing our children. As well as the sixth form, we intend to help regenerate the local community. We're extending links into the home and wider community. Our family learning unit is starting GCSEs for parents, as well as the usual evening classes in yoga, flower arranging, literacy, numeracy and computing. We'll run languages, English and maths, depending on demand.

The benefits will be great: to see your parents learning in school says, "Education is important, education is lifelong". We've got to bring home and school closer together. To further aid this, we have a gym and community swimming pool.

Q: So you are rooted here?

A: I like to grow things. When I arrived, the school was in special measures; now it's outstanding. We've taken a patch of land and made a garden, a farm. Anyone can maintain something good; I like to grow something good.

Our young people come here from tower blocks and the streets. They sit in the outdoor classroom and hear birdsong; they see senior citizens from the community digging, and tiddlers from primary schools and nurseries weeding and playing with rabbits. They go to food technology classes and learn to eat healthily and to exercise. It's nurture, it's organic. I love it.


Name: William Atkinson

Age: 58

Job: Headteacher, Phoenix High, Shepherds Bush, London 1995-present

Education: BEd, North London Polytechnic 1975-78; MEd, Kings College London 1978-79; honorary doctorate, University of North London (now London Metropolitan University) 2002

Career: teacher, Portsmouth Modern Boys' School 1971-73; teacher, Islington Green School 1973; assistant head of year, Holloway Boys' School 1974-81; deputy head, Henry Thornton School 1981-83; deputy head, White Hart Lane School 1983-86; head, Copland Community School 1986-87; head, Cranford Community School 1987-95

Other: Standards Task Force 1997; Leadership in Diversity award 2002; featured on Channel 4's The Unteachables in 2005; Teaching Awards judge since 1997; Fellow, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce 2000-present

Interests: family, sport (rugby, cycling), current affairs.

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