'They're big shoes to fill,' says heir to Mossbourne

11th May 2012 at 01:00
New head Peter Hughes honours Sir Michael Wilshaw's vision

Peter Hughes is already waiting for me when I arrive at his office. Seated in a large leather chair, both hands on the armrests, he looks tense and alert.

It is his first interview since becoming principal of perhaps the most famous state school in England, Mossbourne Community Academy in East London. With his close-cropped hair, chiselled jaw and what writers generally describe as "a steely stare", Hughes looks more like a special forces soldier than the headteacher of a school.

The Australian is part of a new breed of head coming through the ranks. A member of Future Leaders, a group of young, driven teachers working in deprived, inner-city areas with almost evangelical zeal, Hughes is the epitome of the all-action headteacher.

When he is not crunching pupil assessment figures, he is running a marathon (four hours, 13 minutes last time out), indulging his hobby of photography or fitting a new central heating system in his house. And it is probably thanks to this "can-do" attitude that Hughes was handed what will be arguably one of the most closely scrutinised jobs in education: Mossbourne and its outgoing head have been feted by just about everyone from the education secretary downwards.

As such, by taking over from Sir Michael Wilshaw, now chief inspector at Ofsted, Hughes has a hard act to follow.

"It has gone well so far, and I am enjoying it. They are big shoes," he says in reference to his former boss. "I received brilliant training; Sir Michael is a brilliant mentor and I learned a lot from him in my five years working with him at this school."

Hughes officially took over from Sir Michael in January, but he joined the school in 2007 and had been acting principal for more than a year and a half before he was appointed headteacher, as his mentor became more widely involved with the academies movement.

Sir Michael's departure comes at an important time for Mossbourne and its new principal. The academy is in the very early stages of opening a new school a couple of miles away, provisionally called Mossbourne Victoria Park Academy. "It's a working title," Hughes says, before adding, with a rare display of humour, "in that it's Mossbourne, it's an academy, and it's in Victoria Park."

The new school is a response to the ever-growing demand for places at Mossbourne. Owing to its success, this year 1,500 applications were received for just 200 spaces.

As a result, the school has been forced to alter its admissions policy. From next year, it will operate a lottery system based on fair banding.

"Our inner-circle catchment area had shrunk from us taking kids 1km away to less than 500m," Hughes says. "It meant we weren't serving the whole of Hackney."

Critics have tried to attribute Mossbourne's spectacular achievements to backhanded admissions practices. The NUT has often pointed to the school's "complicated" doughnut catchment area, and has even suggested that the school caters for parents who are willing to turn up to open days and the like, therefore sifting the aspirational from the not so ambitious.

The mention of this draws a level stare from Hughes. "I have to laugh," he says, without laughing. "I have worked in three inner-city schools since arriving in England, and never anywhere, even in the schools I worked in back in Australia, have I seen the level of pastoral care that I see here."

Once the new school in Victoria Park opens in 2014 and starts running at full capacity, Hughes says, the Mossbourne brand will be able to improve the life chances of more than 2,000 children in the borough.

But anyone thinking that the brand will change under Hughes would be wrong. When it comes to school leadership, the 37-year-old is singing from the song sheet that Sir Michael wrote.

An unofficial motto among teaching staff is "No child says 'no'". The idea of "sweating the small stuff" is still very much a part of the school's ethos. There is no hugging; uniforms must be worn properly at all times; coats must be taken off before entering the building. And if any of this is not observed, it means Saturday detention.

"You can't work with someone and be their right-hand man for so long and not know what their ethos and values are," Hughes says. "[Sir Michael's] ethos and values are firm and he has always stood by them and I am a firm believer in them. He and I share a lot of similarities in beliefs and I would wager that is why I was appointed to this role."

While Sir Michael's, and now Hughes', methods at Mossbourne may divide opinion, they certainly seem to work. The school is again expecting to see several of its students go on to study at Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, and its GCSE results keep on impressing, with more than 80 per cent of students in the past two years hitting the government's benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Originally a maths teacher, Sydney-born Hughes arrived in England, like many of his fellow countrymen, planning to remain for just a year while he travelled around Europe. That was 11 years ago. "I just grew to love London, and I really enjoyed my job, particularly when I joined here," he says.

His passion for his job is unquestionable, and it is hard not to come to the conclusion that, for however long Hughes is Mossbourne's principal, it is unlikely that the school's impeccable performance will slip.

And when asked what his school does differently, he once again evokes his former boss. "We're asked quite often what do we do differently as an academy and I will come back to a quote Sir Michael said to another journalist. He said: 'What we're going to do differently is we're going to teach well,' and that is what I am insistent on."


Age 37

1993-96: Bachelor of Education (secondary maths), Charles Sturt University, Australia

1997-98: Supply teacher, Bourke High School, Australia

1998-2001: Maths teacher and head of year, Young High School, Australia

2001-03: Maths teacher and numeracy coordinator, Pimlico School, London

2003-07: Maths teacher, Highgate Wood School, London

2007-present: Mossbourne Community Academy, London (2007-09, associate vice-principal; 2009-10, vice-principal; 2010-12, acting principal; January 2012-present, principal).

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