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A privilege to spend the last two days with inspirational school leaders from . This has been my 5th cohort and so impressed with the vision of this Trust and the passion of those attending - even when they are officially on holiday!!


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As Mathematicians, we know Maths is all around us. Maths department challenge you to find the maths in your everyday lives. Over summer we would like you to use your photographic/art skills & Tweet pictures asking, 'where is the Maths in this?' Use


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Posted on: April 16th 2015

Could Harris Westminster be the most elitist school in the country?

Article featured in The Times on 16th April 2015.

Pupils at Harris Westminster School - Bethany Clarke

Helen Rumbelow

If you stand on a street leading towards Westminster Abbey, you can see two different life paths stretched out in front of you. Within squinting distance is Westminster School, with pupils in their pretty pink ties striding through the stone arch of their ancient institution. Their parents pay more than £25,000 a year to get them fast-tracked to Oxbridge and a life of privilege.

And here, where I am standing, are 16-year-olds from the other extreme of the class divide. They hunch nervously as they go through the glass doors of a modern office block. They are kids from the depths of east and south London, whose parents may be unemployed or cleaners or bus drivers, but who are being groomed for an unprecedented social experiment. Their parents will pay no fees and hope for fast-tracking to Oxbridge.

Here’s the catch: they have to prove, in a series of exams and interviews, that I am here to witness, that they are very smart. They have to hold their own if they end up — as some do — in the same classroom as the über-educated rich kids down the street. This is Harris Westminster Sixth Form, an alliance of Harris, the successful chain of urban academies, and Westminster School, which regularly ranks as achieving the most Oxbridge entrants of any school.

Together they have founded what they aim to be the most ruthlessly elitist state sixth form in the country, the most targeted at the deprived, and with the most open sharing between teachers and students of any public school. It’s also, at £45 million of taxpayers’ money, one of the most expensive. The distance between the two institutions is only about 250m, but it’s a gulf as wide as social inequality in the UK. It is housed in an old Ministry of Justice office building, but is delivering justice of a more radical kind. Can the clever poor kids, given two years of rich-kid intellectual boot camp, close the gap?

This story is personal to me too. Up to the age of 16 I went to a school that rarely sent students to Oxbridge, one girl in our year went. But for sixth form, my parents switched me to Westminster, and there it became almost harder not to go to Oxbridge, something like half of the year did. You underwent precise and ultra-staffed preparation like an expensive machine in a Grand Prix. Walking past those blithely lucky children on my way here triggers my suppressed survivor guilt.

“In this room we have some of the brightest and most interesting people in London,” says James Handscombe, the Harris Westminster head, to a room of 16-year-olds.

The Harris Westminster library is packed with teens who have got through the first round of tests, designed to spot the victims of bad teaching. I look around to see what the brightest people in London look like. A true melting pot of hijabs and street fashion. They match the ethnic mix of students already in the school’s first year: there’s a white minority, the largest ethnic group, at 22 per cent, is black African; the student president is half Morrocan, half Afghan. A trio of current students stand by to welcome in the newcomers.

Handscombe is still giving his pep talk: “We want to see the type of student aiming at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton . . .” he says, and his audience casts their faces down. I realise that Handscombe’s job is more elusive than just raising grades: it’s about instilling the swagger of someone who knows they are better than the rest, in people who have on some measures been seen as the opposite.

One of the first girls I speak to is waiting for interview in her hijab, her bag dusty and worn but her shoes meticulously shined. If this school represents for her another league, Westminster School was another planet. She told me that, although living in east London, she had never been to Westminster Abbey or the Houses of Parliament. I tell her that this school is sited within the heart of the UK’s power base partly for that reason, to connect deprived children with ancient institutions as wealthy children often are, so they will not feel intimidated by Oxbridge or the Inns of Court. She’s excited by the idea. She has suffered disruptive classrooms all her life and found her way to this entry process on a Google lifeline. But she’s also daunted. Her Bangladeshi father barely makes ends meet as a minicab driver. “I do worry about the cost of a tube fare every day.”

A mixture of teachers from Harris Westminster and Westminster School keep popping into the library to call applicants for interview. Intimidation gets the better of some applicants. I see one Westminster teacher give an effusive welcome to a boy in a leather jacket who could only whisper a dry-mouthed “OK” in reply.

I sit in while Handscombe interviews some of the applicants for Maths A level. They strike me as precociously bright. Once they sit at his desk, Handscombe issues them with sadistic, too difficult, maths puzzles. Instead of giving up they cling to them like drowning men. But they are harsh on their own performance. “I’m too slow,” says one, “I’m sorry,” another repeats. None feels assured enough to unbutton their coat. I imagine all of them think they’ve flunked. One says, “Thank you for the opportunity” on exiting, like someone fired in The Apprentice. I recently reported on 16-year-olds at a leading private school, they seemed like they could hold their own on Question Time. These teenagers are the opposite of that smooth entitlement. “There’s a problem,” Handscombe says to me during a break in interviews. “Westminster School gets more students [roughly 70] into Oxbridge in an average year than all free school meals students across the country.”

First, a few things to know about Handscombe: he is a maths prodigy, having achieved one of the highest Firsts in his year at Oxford. He went to a Sheffield comprehensive and was, he admits, a “git to teach”.

One maths teacher got so infuriated by Handscombe pointing out his mistakes that he exiled him to the remedial room. After research at Harvard, Handscombe worked in British grammar schools. A grand piano is squeezed into his modest office, yet he incongruously reminds me of a singer in a Britpop band. I think it’s something to do with his energetic idealism. “It really annoys me when you hear people complaining about the elite being dominated by private schools and Oxbridge, as those two things are different. At private school your parents have to pay money. To get into Oxbridge you should have to be clever.”

I ask by what measure he will know the project is working. He says his “1,000-year goal is 50 per cent into Oxbridge, as that’s what Westminster have and they’ve been going 1,000 years.” But, shorter term, he wants half a dozen into Oxbridge. “They are not typical Oxbridge candidates, some of them have poor GCSEs. But nobody has done this, no one knows how much progress they can make.”

Harris Westminster tried to protect itself from the grammar-school trap where selection by test alone means intake skewed to the tutored middle classes. Anyone on free school meals has to clear a base level in the tests and interview, but they get preference. Teens on free school meals make up more than a third of the first year of intake, double the national average in state secondaries.

This makes the mixing between the Harris Westminster and Westminster students, which I could already imagine as some kind of “extremes of class” teen comedy drama, even more fascinating. Harris Westminster’s closest rival is the Eton-sponsored London Academy of Excellence, but you do not get its students from east London at Eton. By contrast, these students are regularly on the Westminster campus, for debating or talks. Nine current Harris Westminster students are being taught at least one A level at Westminster School, because they have chosen niche subjects. They get tens of thousands of pounds of education “free”.

When I spoke to Patrick Derham, the head of Westminster School, he said something that struck me as unusual. As he joined Westminster, just as this partnership began, he witnessed lessons at Westminster with no idea which pupils were from Harris Westminster. “I couldn’t tell who was from which school.” I tell him I think I could tell, on grounds of assurance and accent. “That’s a misunderstanding,” Derham says. “We want to be needs-blind in the long term. We already have a generous bursary programme.”

But, I say, doesn’t the laudable, but limited, amount of access to this public school that the state-school pupils have only underline how much privilege they don’t have?

“I would turn that on its head. The principle is that Harris Westminster provides a Westminster education anyway. All we’re doing is ensuring the full range of opportunities to all pupils.”

I feel morally confused: I am impressed my old school is going beyond its counterparts, but the closeness of the partnership still feels uncomfortable, highlighting the gap it seeks to close. I think the presence of these kids in my class at Westminster would have shamed me. Now I worry that it is patronising. That to make up for a lifetime of deprivation with just two years of fast-track teaching on a state budget doesn’t seem enough.

So, finally, I talk to about a dozen of the very first students of Harris Westminster, now in the first year of their A-level courses. Their school is still being built: from the windows we can see Methodist Central Hall, but inside the vibe is basic office. I asked Handscombe if this was a school for geeks. You can, for example, choose Bridge for PE. He replied, “Yeah, and we’re not even sorry.”

In person, the kids are not that geeky, more determined. They have managed to get their own education even when those around them are losing theirs: time and again they say the word “relief”, to arrive at a place where, as one girl, Claire, from Upminster, says: “Everyone wants to get on as much as you.” Xheni, from Bromley, says: “There’s a maturity here, so it can be about learning not behaviour.”

The teachers make sure things are difficult for these kids used to coasting in the top set. Handscombe says he wants “their brains to hurt every day”. More than two thirds of staff at Harris Westminster are Oxbridge-educated, a scattering have doctorates. The timetable commits a lot of space to working beyond the curriculum, often literally. As William, from Essex, says: “You can email your teacher at any time and they will respond. Another one of my teachers bought an iPhone so he could get our emails all the time.”

So, I ask, how do they view the Westminster School students?

“It is another world, but you can see it’s not that different,” William says. Claire adds, “I don’t feel jealous. I like it better here. I feel we have more freedom.” Another girl tells me: “Academically we’re pretty similar. They are just born into money. You can’t judge them by the school their parents send them to.”


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