Good news for free school fans

Well they may have been put under serious scrutiny by just about everyone in the profession since they came in, and had plenty of mixed reviews, but today brings some good news for the government about their Free School programme.

A school in one of the poorest parts of Britain is sending six pupils to Oxford or Cambridge University, putting it on a par with some of the most famous public schools.

The performance of pupils at the London Academy of Excellence — known as “the Eton of the East End” — is as good as Millfield achieved last year, where six pupils accepted Oxbridge places. The academy, based in Stratford, east London, also compares well with schools such as Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles was a pupil, according to Janette Wallis, editor of the Good Schools Guide.

The academy has secured more Oxbridge offers than all the schools in the borough of Newham managed last year. Michael Gove, the education secretary, is likely to hail the result as a triumph for his free school programme, even though there are clearly failures in the system as some are set to close and some have very high profile incidences of failure, such as the Al-Madinah school in Derby.

The academy, which has been open for only 16 months, is the first free school to be backed by private schools, including Brighton College, Eton, Roedean, City of London and Highgate. Teenagers must wear business-style suits and the school day ends at 5pm. It was set up with the aim of getting bright children from poor families “into the very top universities”, it offers only “hard” A-levels such as maths, history or physics and half its teachers are Oxbridge graduates.

The pupils celebrating their success last week are from the first year of the sixth-form college to take A-levels. Nearly all said they had thought Oxbridge was out of their reach.

Audrey Walela, 18, the daughter of an immigrant nurse, has an offer from Oxford to read human sciences while Onkar Singh, 18, the son of a builder, is going to Downing College, Cambridge, to read modern languages. He sat by the window for three hours waiting for the postman to deliver the letter offering him a place and says his mother “started crying immediately” when he broke the news…

The academy was the brainchild of Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, whose work as a governor of Kingsford Community School in Newham had convinced him of the area’s need for a college to prepare pupils for the top universities. “My ambition was for it to secure as many Oxbridge places as a typical independent school. I’m thrilled this has been achieved at the first time of trying,” he said.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the governors and former head of Harrow, said: “We are very pleased with these results which suggest there is much untapped potential in the state sector. But we have only been open for four terms: this is just the beginning.”

Tony Little, headmaster at Eton, said one of the next challenges would be to encourage more white working-class children to apply to the academy. Only time will tell if this school gets stronger and stronger. It does help to have some very high profile backers though.

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