This headteacher wants his students to run the country

14th November 2014 at 00:00
pound;45m academy aims to put FSM pupils in the corridors of power

Building one of the most expensive schools in the country at a time of austerity and government cuts was bound to be controversial. To detractors, the pound;45 million spent setting up Harris Westminster Sixth Form in central London - which will cater for 600 students at full capacity - is outrageous. To its principal, James Handscombe, it is the investment needed to achieve something that the system has so far failed to deliver: to get young people from the most deprived backgrounds "to achieve outstandingly academically and in the top echelons of society".

The school, which opened its doors this term, is jointly sponsored by the Harris Federation academy chain and the exclusive Westminster independent school. It is unashamedly elitist in selecting the brightest young people - every student must sit an entrance exam and be interviewed for their place - but it is equally determined that as many as possible should come from low-income homes.

"About 50 free school meals kids get into Oxbridge in any one year. It's ridiculous," Mr Handscombe said. "And over my lifetime, much more than pound;45 million has been sunk into [improving] that. Education is enormously better now than it was when I was at school but it still isn't working for that group; the statistics say we haven't succeeded."

The school opened in September with 140 pupils after attracting 400 applications. All pupils study A-levels with a view to entering Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Six hundred people have already registered their interest for next year.

The aim is for at least eight students from the first cohort to be accepted to Oxford or Cambridge. By 2020, the school hopes that figure will be 15 per cent. The long-term goal is for half of all students to be accepted to one of the two prestigious universities - a goal that Westminster School has achieved in the past.

It will be no mean feat, as Harris Westminster wants to give priority to those eligible for free school meals - a group notoriously under-represented at Oxford and Cambridge. Of the first cohort, 30 per cent of students are in this demographic and it is hoped that this will eventually rise to 50 per cent.

Housed in a revamped former Ministry of Justice office block, just metres from Westminster Abbey, Whitehall and Big Ben, the school has obvious appeal for ambitious families and their offspring. But can the cost of this impressive location really be justified?

Mr Handscombe, a comprehensively educated mathematician from Sheffield who gained a first-class honours degree from the University of Oxford, insisted that it was "incredibly important" for the school to be located at the heart of the country's power base.

"I remember the shock I felt when I first walked through the centre of Oxford," he said. "It was an alien world. It can be scary and scary always puts you off.

"The kids at Westminster School walk past Big Ben every day, they see Buckingham Palace, Whitehall, the City, there is a familiarity there. They see that this is somewhere where people work; it's normal. If you go to your local school in Bexley, you don't see any of those things."

He continued: "One of the things we want is for our students to feel that old buildings are not scary, that the corridors of power are just places, that important people are just people and that this is just stuff. It might be difficult to get the jobs and get into Oxford or Cambridge but it's nothing to be scared of."

The links with neighbouring Westminster School had also helped the state-school students understand that their public-school counterparts were not so different and that they could compete with them, he added.

And although the majority of A-levels are taught within the new sixth form, students taking "minority" subjects such as Latin, drama and music attend lessons across the road alongside their privately educated peers.

"They've kicked around with the Westminster guys.they know that they [Westminster students] can walk around like they own the place, but they know they are not really different or better," Mr Handscombe said.

The central location also allows for the school's catchment area to extend to the whole of London - making it easier to find talented young people from deprived backgrounds who could benefit, Mr Handscombe added.

He acknowledged that the set-up costs were considerable, but said they could be justified if it turned out to be "a great school". "And I think we are going to be, I think we are," he said.

The aim, he explained, was not just for the brilliant students capable of firsts to be accepted on to degree courses, but for those capable of 2:1 degrees to get in, too. After all, private schools managed it with excellent teaching and thorough preparation, he said.

Mr Handscombe, who describes his own comprehensive education as "patchy", is pragmatic about academic selection.

Work to raise standards across the board had resulted in overall improvements in education, he said, but to crack the nut of getting truly disadvantaged children into top universities and jobs, the government had to focus its resources more tightly on talented children.

At the moment, the necessary quantity of good teachers and leaders required to turn things around in a purely comprehensive system was not available, he said. His school, therefore, is a means to an end.

"If Harris Westminster becomes a leader in sending deprived students to the top universities and changes the proportion of students who are state-educated who get into Parliament and the Cabinet; if in 25 years we are looking at a Cabinet that has a mix of state and a few privately educated people.then I think we will say that was pound;45 million well spent."

One of his dreams, Mr Handscombe said, was to see his former students, from humble backgrounds, working in the imposing Westminster buildings that surround the school. "I'd be happy for them to be running the country when I'm old and grey and sitting on my porch, shouting maths at passers-by."

Principal years

James Handscombe

1985-92 Achieves five A-levels at Silverdale School, Sheffield

1992-99 Earns a BA in maths at Merton College, Oxford, a master's at Harvard, and returns to Oxford for his PGCE

1999-2002 Teaches maths in the Rhondda Valley in Wales; spends a year in Sydney, Australia

2002-05 Head of maths at Thomas More RC Comprehensive School, Greenwich, London

2005-13 Assistant headteacher at Beaverwood School in Bromley; deputy head at Bexley Grammar School from 2008

2014 Becomes principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in Westminster, central London

Top trumps

New selective free school sixth forms designed to prepare a state-educated elite for top universities:

London Academy of Excellence

Where: Stratford, East London.

Opened: 2012

Sponsored by: A coterie of top private schools including Eton and Brighton Colleges.

Results: Five students accepted to Oxbridge as of August 2014.

King's College London Mathematics School

Where: Lambeth, South London.

Opened: September 2014

Sponsored by: King's College London

Results: None yet.

Exeter Mathematics School

Where: Exeter

Opened: September 2014

Sponsored by: University of Exeter and Exeter College

Results: None yet

Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Where: Westminster, London

Opened: September 2014

Sponsored by: Harris Federation and Westminster School

Results: Aims to send eight of its first cohort to Oxbridge.

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