The Weekend Read: Are we looking at a new generation of super-selective sixth forms?

The government may have dropped its aim to open new grammar schools, but can we expect more super-selective sixth forms to open across the country?

Eleanor Busby

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Builders working on Tottenham Hotspur's new football stadium surround a new academically selective sixth form, which is only a stone’s throw away from the grounds. But inside the free school, it is eerily quiet.

The first cohort of sixth formers at London Academy Excellence (LAE) Tottenham, situated in the football club’s offices, started last term.

The students' subject choices are restricted to "hard" A-level courses, with the aim of boosting their chances of getting into top universities – and it is clear from a visit to the school that they mean business.

Small classes of well-behaved sixth formers dressed in smart clothes listen attentively to their teachers in classrooms with transparent walls. Even the headteacher's office is see-through.

Jan Balon, headteacher of LAE Tottenham, admits the space – previously used by Tottenham University Technical College (UTC), which closed last July – was not what the sixth form would necessarily have chosen. But he says the sixth formers enjoy the office-feel.

“They enjoy feeling like they are coming to work,” he says. “It feels very grown up to them. It is powerful.”

Many of the ambitious students – who had to get at least a grade A (or a grade 7 under the new GCSE grading scale) in subjects they chose for A-level – spend long hours at the school, studying there in the evening.

They’re required to stay in the building from 8.30am to 4pm each day, but many are still there at 6.30pm. And Balon thinks his students will ask for the opening hours to be extended further.

Independent school backing

LAE Tottenham is not the first selective sixth-form college to open its doors in recent years. It is based on LAE Stratford, which opened almost six years ago and was named as the State Sixth Form of the Year for 2015-16 by the Sunday Times.

Harris Westminster Sixth Form is another selective sixth form school in London, which opened in 2014. It was recently listed in the top 10 of society magazine Tatler’s annual State Schools Guide.

All three of the sixth-form free schools have one key thing in common: independent school support – both financial and pedagogical.

Teachers from private schools have been seconded to the state schools to share their expertise. Meanwhile, students have visited the prestigious partner schools, and vice versa, so they can learn from each other.

And at LAE Tottenham, a number of senior leaders at the partner independent schools sit on the school’s governing board.

Highgate School, in North London, is the lead education sponsor for LAE Tottenham – which also attracts support from nine other independent schools.

LAE Stratford is backed by six independent schools – including the prestigious Eton College – and Harris Westminster is backed by fee-paying Westminster school.

Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is LAE Tottenham's "business partner". One of the more unusual perks of this close partnership with Tottenham Hotspur is a supply of match tickets. Students are taken to Spurs’ games, currently taking place in Wembley, as rewards for hard work.

Expanding selection?

But are more academically selective sixth forms on the horizon? And, if so, how does that fit with the government's U-turn over its earlier plans to expand selection?

Following the election last summer, plans to open new grammar schools across the country were dropped. 

That means new selective schools, for pupils starting at age 11, are off the cards – but schools are still allowed to select students into sixth form based on their academic achievements.

Each school will have different sixth-form entry requirements, but five GCSE grades at C and above (or grade 4 and above) – or possibly slightly higher – is common.

However, a number of “super-selective” schools ask for A or A* grades (or grades 7 to 9), or require students to sit an exam before they are considered for a place. 

Harris Westminster, for example, holds entrance exams and interviews for applicants. It also expects students to get at least six A*-B grades – including A or A* grades in the subjects applied for.

But headteacher James Handscombe does not consider his school to be “super-selective”. He says: “It is fairly normal for A-level provision. I guess [it's] on the high end of normal, but it isn’t super selective.”

King's College London Maths School, which is a “highly selective” free school, only asks for seven GCSEs – including English at grade 5 – which is the equivalent of a high C. But it does require at least a grade 7 in physics and an 8 or 9 in maths. 

Where else could they open?

The fee-paying Alleyn’s School, one of LAE Tottenham’s partner schools, would be interested in sponsoring another school in the capital if the opportunity arose.

“In principle, I think it would be a great thing,” Gary Savage, headteacher of the school in Dulwich, South London, says. But there are no immediate plans on the horizon.

What about the rest of the country? So far, the most selective sixth forms are mainly based in London. But the government has signalled that it would like this to change.

In November last year, chancellor Phillip Hammond invited applications for new specialist maths schools, like the King's College London Maths School across England, in his Budget announcement.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party election manifesto set out plans for at least 100 leading independent schools – as well as universities – to become involved in sponsoring academies or founding free schools.

The Department for Education still hasn’t published its response to the Green Paper on these plans,  but the aspirations behind the target haven't disappeared.

In September, the System Partnership Unit, to monitor and broker partnerships between independent and state schools, was announced by the DfE. And Sir David Carter, national schools commissioner, said the unit was keen to hear from schools interested in working with independent schools and universities.

Replicating the model

Although the unit has not specified that the new free schools should be selective, Sir David wrote in a piece for Tes that the academically selective LAE Tottenham was a great example of a partnership.

Speaking from LAE Tottenham, which is in the most disadvantaged ward in the south of England, Balon says there’s wider interest in the model.

“We have had people here look around with the view to think about whether it’s possible somewhere else,” he says. In fact, Sir David himself visited the sixth form last term.  

“From what I can see it seems like it’s something the government is trying to push,” Balon adds.

There is interest in replicating the model in the West Midlands. Heath Monk, executive director of King Edward VI Foundation – a well-known group of grammar schools and independent schools in Birmingham – is keen to look into setting up a new academically selective sixth form.

“It is on our to-do-list on something that we might do,” Monk says. “It is a model that we have internally thought ‘is that something we should look at?’”

He says it would help more children in Birmingham get to top universities – and help to provide more spaces on academic A-level courses for students.

Tes understands that there is also interest in replicating the LAE model in the North West.

Nearby sixth forms 'under threat'

But there are a number of challenges to opening up a new selective sixth form. Monk says: “It is always difficult with a new school because you would face, I am sure, opposition from school sixth forms that would perceive themselves as being under threat because of this.”

“Probably even our own [schools] would be slightly uncomfortable about it,” he admits.

When asked whether other schools have been affected by the opening of LAE Tottenham, Balon says the local sixth form college doesn’t serve the same cohort. “Our students would not have gone there. They would have gone out of the borough,” he says. Some would commute for an hour to school.

“I am sure people will have lots of questions about whether schools like this are right," Balon adds. "I think when you have got them in this area where this is quite a genuine need – and these students are having to leave the area – why should local ambitious young people have to leave the area?”

There is an element of risk to setting up any new school: how will it be received by the community and can enough students be persuaded to sign up? 

LAE Tottenham had 113 students start in September – which was lower than they had aimed for. And this year, up to a third of the Year 12 cohort didn’t meet all the school’s entry requirements.

But applications to the school are up by 40 per cent for September. And in the long term, the aim is to have 350 in each year group – a total of 700 students.  

Currently, the school prioritises students from five local 11-16 feeder schools – at which between 57 per cent to 69 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals. Balon says the challenge in the future will be how to maintain the focus on the local disadvantaged students, as the school grows.  

“It will take some time to convince [the community] that the people behind the school are in it for the long haul and are genuine about making sure it remains a school for local young people as much as possible,” he adds.  

He insists that the school will continue to serve local children in years to come.

Adam Pettit, head of Highgate School, thinks it is important for any new selective sixth forms to open in areas with similar conditions to the LAE model, so that they are able to serve local children in deprived areas.

“[Schools should] check that you are going to have children that are, broadly speaking, in 11 to 16 schools who would be moving anyway,” he says.

'Hugely expensive to run'

But for many, the key challenge to setting up a new school is money. Without financial support from an independent school, university, or business, it is very difficult to set up a sixth form like LAE.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says: “Sixth forms in general are becoming hugely expensive to run.

“If part of what this is doing is rationalising provision then there is probably a good argument for it,” he adds. “If what it is doing is creating an outpost for the very brightest kids – if that leaves the others without some provision - then that would be more worrying.”

A number of independent schools say they are too small, or lack sufficient alumni funds, to help set up a free school – which could act as a brake to similar projects springing up across the country.

Jim Skinner, chief executive at the Grammar School Heads’ Association, says: “Unless there is some other sort of sponsorship funding, I think setting up any freestanding sixth form – whether it is selective or not – in the country in the current funding climate is a real challenge.

“Post-16 funding is worryingly low and nothing significant has been done to address that.”

It is true that only a handful of academically selective sixth forms have been set up in recent years – despite receiving high praise from a number of ministers and civil servants.

But, given the government’s focus on independent and state school partnerships, and social mobility, it seems plausible that the number of super-selective sixth forms will rise.

However, if it can only happen with financial support from the independent, higher education, or business sector – and not every school is lucky enough to have a Premier League football club on the doorstep.  

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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