Top public school offers pupils from poor backgrounds academy route to Oxbridge

In an article in The Times, 20/04/13, Greg Hurst reports on the announcement that Westminster School has combined with the Harris Federation to create a sixth-form academy

Westminster School has combined with the Harris Federation to create the academy, which is likely to join the ranks of Britain’s most selective schools. Applicants will have to pass a demanding entrance exam and interview, and achieve A* or A grades at GCSE, to be offered a place.

Entry standards will be similar to those for Westminster, although offers will be based on potential, not results alone. Priority will be given to teenagers whose low family income entitles them to free school meals and to children in care.

The academy will be set up under the Government’s free schools programme. Formal approval is expected next month, allowing it to start recruiting in June and to admit its first 125 students in autumn next year. Its full capacity will rise to 250 a year later.

Dr Stephen Spurr, head master of Westminster, said: “We are best at teaching academically gifted children and we believe that there are plenty such young people with the ability and potential to make the most of such a sixth form and go on to the best universities in this country and elsewhere.”

Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of Harris, said that he would like half of the academy’s students to go on to Oxford or Cambridge, a similar proportion to Westminster’s. This would make it far and away England’s most successful state-funded school.

“We have around 1,600 or 1,700 sixth formers at Harris academies and are targeting Russell Group universities. We want to get more A* and A grades at A level and Westminster has that expertise,” he said.

Eton is also to sponsor a day and boarding school in Holyport, Berkshire, with a fifth of places for poor children, and Winchester is partner to a secondary school, Midhurst Rother College, in Hampshire, sponsored by the academy chain United Learning.

Westminster, which charges fees of £23,583, or £31,350 for boarders, sends about 90 pupils to Oxford and Cambridge each year, more than any other school, plus about 25 to Ivy League universities in America. It will design the new academy’s curriculum, with students sitting a mixture of A levels, international A levels and Pre-U exams, and studying optional subjects.

The academy will recruit its own staff but they will work closely with teachers at Westminster, holding joint departmental meetings and shared training. Its site will be near Westminster School and it will be called Harris Westminster Sixth Form Academy.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev John Hall, will become chairman of governors at both schools and join the board of Harris, which was set up by the businessman Lord Harris of Peckham and runs 19 schools mostly in South London. It will become the most advanced collaboration between a leading independent school and an academy chain. Beyond the surviving grammars, schools are not allowed to select pupils below 16 but sixth forms are able to set entry requirements.

Admissions will be open to bright children from all schools in London. It will be one of the first to take advantage of new rules allowing schools to give priority to poor children entitled to free school meals.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said: “This sixth form is a unique collaboration between two leading lights of UK education. By combining their skills and experience they will be able to create a world-class sixth form for teenagers from all over London.”

By Greg Hurst, Education Editor. Click here to read the article © The Times.