Inside the state school offering a £30,000-a-year standard of education

The Telegraph, 05.09.15, this is Harris Westminster, a sixth-form free school coming to the end of its first year of operation. In partnership with Westminster, the top independent school, its stated aim is to provide a world-class education to some of London’s most deprived students, and get them into the best universities in the country. HMC member Patrick Derham, headmaster of leading independent Westminster School is quoted.

There are plenty of shocking statistics in British education, but one of the most alarming is that more pupils go to Oxbridge from Westminster School than all pupils from around the country who qualify for free school meals put together. Westminster is arguably a more egregious shorthand for privilege than Eton: its chapel is Westminster Abbey, the playground clock is Big Ben. An average of 50 per cent of its pupils go on to Oxford or Cambridge; for students on free school meals, the figure is one in 1,000.

In a country with low social mobility, further divided by austerity cuts to public services, there are few clearer demonstrations of the chasm between richest and poorest. ‘Morally, that’s not right,’ James Handscombe, the Harris principal, tells me. The boyish Handscombe, 41, is a good example of the powers of education. From a comprehensive in Sheffield, he got a top first in maths at Oxford before a masters at Harvard and a career at five different schools, including a private school in Sydney, before this new job. He applied to be Harris Westminster’s first principal in 2013 and took the reins last summer. ‘It has been very tiring,’ he tells me. ‘But it’s an amazing opportunity to set up a school with such a clear purpose: we are here to get bright kids from all backgrounds, but particularly from deprived backgrounds, into the top universities.’

Harris Westminster is perhaps the most selective sixth form in the country. Potential students apply in the autumn of Year 11. The school reaches out to other Harris academies and 11-16 comprehensives. This year it held a summer school for Year 10 pupils to give them a sense of what it would be like. In the first year, 340 applied for 125 places, with 139 given places in the end. In this second year, 1,000 have applied for 250 places: the ratio increasing from 3:1 to 4:1. Candidates are whittled down via an exam in mid-January for interviews the next month – 171 in the first year, 400 in the second.

‘The interview measures how quickly they learn, how good they are at the subject, how enthusiastic they are, and how much ownership they have over it,’ Handscombe says. ‘We want to know how much is off their own bat, rather than stuff their parents are making them do.’ Applicants are given a score derived from both the exam and the interview. Harris Westminster sets a pass mark based on the minimum standard of pupil the school thinks will be able to benefit from its teaching. Every free-school-meal student who meets this mark is offered a place, and the other spaces are allocated by score. Last year 51 pupils qualified for free school meals.

Other schools have similar partnerships: Winchester with Midhurst Rother College, West Sussex, and Eton with a day and boarding school in Holyport, Berkshire. But the Westminster and Harris Westminster partnership is unique because the schools are so close. ‘It’s a three-minute walk, which means our teachers can go over for coffee,’ Handscombe says.

Harris Westminster pupils are taught a Westminster syllabus on a Westminster timetable, right down to lessons on Saturday mornings. ‘Saturday lessons are one of the most exciting aspects,’ Handscombe says. ‘It makes it really immersive.’ In subjects where there aren’t enough pupils to make up a class, such as history of art and some modern languages, Harris pupils sit in on Westminster lessons. There is a rowing pair comprised of a girl from each school.

It would be easy to be cynical about Westminster’s motives for the partnership – public schools are more conscious than ever of their divisive position in the national debate, and the need to preserve their controversial charitable status. But at every stage in Harris’s development it seems to have been supported by people with a passion for education. The original idea, Handscombe explains, came from a conversation between Dr John Hall, the Dean of Westminster, and Lord Harris, the CarpetRight tycoon and Tory donor. It also dovetailed with the then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s desire for state schools to learn from Britain’s leading public schools, seen as some of the best in the world.

The plan to partner with Harris Westminster was a key reason the current headmaster of Westminster, Patrick Derham, 56, moved from his position as headmaster of Rugby School last September. But he’s not quite the typical public-school headmaster. The son of an alcoholic father, who has since died, and a mother who still lives on a Glasgow council estate, where he grew up, Derham attended eight schools before he was 12. ‘It was pretty tough, as you’d imagine,’ he says. But a bursary to Pangbourne, the naval school in Berkshire, ‘changed his life’, he says. He went on to study history at Cambridge, and from there went into teaching. ‘I am absolutely passionate about the transformative power of education,’ he says.

If its geographical proximity to Westminster gives Harris Westminster a unique advantage, it is also the source of its controversy. Being a large slice of prime central London property, its building cost the government £45 million, 10 times the average start-up cost of a free school. It was denounced as a ‘vanity project’ at a time of widespread cuts in education. Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, called it ‘outrageous’, adding that it took ‘precious resources away from areas that really need it’. The school receives the usual free-school funding of around £5,000 per student per year, with additional support provided by the Harris Federation for things such as travel bursaries and IT. (Westminster does not provide direct financial assistance, only support.)

Handscombe is unapologetic about the expense. ‘[The building] is a sunk cost, but it’s a government investment. I don’t think central London property is going to go down in value.’ He adds that the benefits of the location are more than just the easy access to Westminster’s common room. ‘For the Westminster guys, a job in Parliament or the Treasury isn’t scary because they’ve been playing football there for five years. But it can be for ordinary kids from south London. Overcoming that is really important, and it’s happening. For the first few weeks our students walk past Big Ben with their eyes on stalks, but now it’s just something that you do. If they went for an interview at the Treasury, they would go on an equal footing.’

After the English lesson, my mind frazzled by metaphysics, I speak to some of the Harris Westminster pupils about how they have found the first year. ‘I’ve absolutely loved it,’ Hannah Wright, 17, says. She came from a school in Upminster, east London, nearly an hour away on the Tube, that did not offer a sixth form. ‘My teacher was head of the gifted and talented section and told a few of us to apply to Harris Westminster,’ she says.

Many of the Harris Westminster pupils travel from outside London. ‘Being at a school where people aren’t as hard-working or like-minded can be frustrating. It’s nice to be with people who don’t judge you for being enthusiastic about English,’ Hannah says.

Joshua O’Connor, 17, agrees. ‘It has been very challenging, very hard, very intense. But that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be as hard as possible because I thrive under competition. Here you have to fight to get to the top.’ He was at the top of his class at his last school, another free school in south London. ‘There, we stopped learning [new work] and spent a whole year going over exam papers. It wasn’t useful because I still wanted to learn.’

As with any elite institution, the nature of Harris Westminster’s high selectiveness comes with the usual criticisms: all those pupils who don’t make the cut, and other classrooms robbed of their brightest and best pupils. But for the students I talk to, Harris Westminster’s elitism is the whole point. ‘I know for a fact I wouldn’t be the standard I am if I hadn’t come here,’ Afagh Mulazadeh, 17, who went to a low-performing comprehensive in Mill Hill, north London, says. ‘I’d still have my drive and ambition but I wouldn’t be at the same level. I’ve been to seven different schools; the difference between how I wrote essays when I came here to how I write them now is like [comparing] night and day.’

Harris pupils don’t get all the benefits of a £30,000-a-year education. Their building wasn’t designed by Christopher Wren, and they don’t have the same use of Westminster Abbey, a multimillion-pound music centre or the playing fields at Vincent Square, in Pimlico. But Afagh says that she hasn’t noticed any rivalry between the schools. ‘It doesn’t exist. Both schools are in such an amazing area that I think we just get along. It’s been nice to get to know each other.’

Before I spoke with Derham I had lunch with some current Westminster pupils. They were perfectly charming, and said all the right things about Harris Westminster. But after the fire-eyed enthusiasm of the Harris Westminster students, their public-school counterparts seemed almost too at ease with their surroundings and the quality of their education. An old teacher of mine I spoke to, still working there, complained that the pupils were increasingly unimaginative. Good at exams but without much spark.For some of the most entitled and privileged schoolchildren in the world, it can surely only be a good thing to be exposed to students who truly value the kind of teaching they have access to. ‘We are seeing the benefits,’ Derham agrees.

Handscombe has plans to extend the school’s intake to about 550 students, half of them Pupil Premium students, meaning they have been eligible for free school meals during their secondary-school careers. Ultimately, he says, ‘I won’t be satisfied until we match Westminster for entries to Oxbridge, but that’s a long way off. I’ll settle for 10 per cent as a good first step.’ The first year of Harris students have just received their AS grades. Thirty per cent were As, with 14 pupils getting straight As. A successful start, but the questions here are bigger than whether Handscombe and his staff can keep their already-bright pupils up to scratch.

‘I’ll have answered the critics in 20 years if we have free-school-meals kids in the Cabinet,’ Handscombe says. ‘If we can change the set-up so that the top echelons are no longer dominated by a small number of private schools, the people running the country will match the rest of the country, and we’ll have better people running the country. It’s in everyone’s interests.’

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