Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time: several months ago, Jan Balon – Headteacher of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (www.laetottenham.ac.uk), our sister school in Tottenham – and I agreed to swap places for the day. Of course, it’s not the first time there’s been a ‘palace coup’ at Highgate: in 2017, as part of our Charity and Community Week I was persuaded to swap places with a pupil who would become Head for the day, and a brisk trade in raffle tickets duly took place, with Joe, now in Year 10, the lucky winner. There were challenges (speeding up my reactions so that I didn’t let down fellow pupils in an interactive Latin vocab quiz on the iPad, and running 1500m in SpEx being ones I recall most, while Joe was given a tour of our grounds and, something never offered to me, allowed to drive our School’s tractor) but I didn’t have to persuade a whole new school that I could be their Head for the day.
I jumped on my bike to Tottenham and it wasn’t long before I could make out the extraordinary building which is the Tottenham Hotspur stadium: it really does grab your attention and, on a beautifully sunny May morning, the window acreage glinted almost mischievously at the early, and surprisingly quiet, Tuesday morning traffic. LAET is housed in a handsome block that nestles under the stadium’s capacious reach: turn right if you’re a player, turn right if you’re a LAET student, and park, thanks to Sainsbury’s, which sits underground.
LAET teachers gather at 8.15am for one of their staff briefings, eerily at the same time as Highgate Senior School colleagues. While Highgate’s chatty rabble need a bell to bring them to order, a polite and friendly silence falls over the LAET staffroom as the long hand jerks towards the clockface three: no one stands to speak, as there is room for everyone to be sitting (I found out afterwards). I greet everyone and set out some of my ideas for the day.
It’s the second day of A level exams and warm thanks are given to colleagues who have prepared LAET’s first ever students for their first exams. News has percolated through from the physicists that Paper 1 was ‘quite doable’; others report that their first exam went well too, and there’s a palpable sense of relief among the students themselves that the first day passed without disaster. Teachers are so conscious that there’s more, so much more, to come than to take much from day one, but I get a sense from the keen interest everyone is taking in each other’s exams that this is very much a shared enterprise. I get a keener sense still that everyone I meet, whatever their role, is hugely and movingly invested in what is happening to these Tottenham pioneers.
I had been warned that Year 12 would be doing their internal exams, so the only lessons taking place would be voluntary revision classes for Year 13. Jan asked me to do a learning walk, and I make my way to four classes in the hour I’m given, a mix of sciences and humanities (Jan doing the same, back at Highgate, in Year 12). No surprise that everyone present is focused and alert: this is all about teeing up your knowledge so as best to hit the green with maximum precision, and so it was. Quick fire questioning from student and teacher as they motor through past papers; students who trust and respect teachers who are willing to challenge and won’t pull academic punches if it’s in the best interest of the will-be examinee.
Next on my dawn-till-dusk agenda was ‘staff voice’, an opportunity for me to hear from colleagues what they think about the Academy. Ofsted uses a set of questions to lead such discussions, and we did the same. My colleagues, some in their second year whom I know better, others in their first, are all meticulously well prepared, and we gallop through our topics – pupil behaviour, bullying, professional development, leadership, workload, parental engagement, connections with partner schools. There is considered, insightful commentary and opinion (not unanimous, a good sign, surely?), plus a consensus that LAET was emerging from the excitement of a ‘start-up’, with all the characteristics that a fledgling organisation will have, to face the opportunities and challenges of being a more mature, well known feature on the educational landscape. So, understandable pride at what has been achieved, and proud understanding of what has been needed, but also burgeoning excitement at the prospect of picking out what works well and honing it, and being brave about what still needs to be done or done differently. If I were an Ofsted inspector, I’d have been impressed by the nuanced grasp of the Academy’s priorities, and the commitment to achieve them.
As soon as my group had dispersed, I spied the first of several trolleys that were found in every meeting room I went to: LAET’s in-house caterers wanted to be sure that I drank coffee and snacked on flapjacks at every turn! But, thank goodness, the Academy Librarian rescued me from food waste and whisked the tempting edibles to hard-at-work students, to ensure they were properly fuelled for their academic work-outs.
From teacher colleagues to Jan’s leadership team, whom I met individually (more coffee and home-made biscuits) to talk through successes and challenges and targets (I will spare blushes, but what a team!), followed by lunch (‘You must try our home-baked focaccia!’), and a quick conversation with two students who gave me context to their educational journeys and aspirations for university. As a Governor, you see a lot of data – 89% are holding at least one offer from a Russell Group university; compare that with the 1% of Tottenham-educated eighteen-year-olds who left for Russell Group universities in 2016 – but it’s always the voices which give reality to the figures. These Governor-student conversations are, of course, always anonymised but the young people I meet convey their keen sense of the opportunity they have always wanted, and now find, in an academy which believes in them and their right to be challenged, and not found wanting.
When Highgate got together with Tottenham Hotspur, encouraged by Haringey and the Department for Education, to plant an academically challenging sixth form school in the heart of Tottenham, we asked ourselves what our unifying strapline should be. Of course, a strapline can only be a springboard for wider values but we landed on LAET, ‘The place for academic rigour.’ We didn’t want Tottenham’s brightest thinking they needed to flee their home borough to find what they needed to succeed. And we worked hard – sponsors, Governors, the Academy’s leaders – to assemble the best possible teachers and support staff. I think I imagined that they would be the justification for the Academy’s claim to being the place for academic rigour, with all their subject-specific and educational know-how and scholarship, and so they are. But, of course, it’s the students, in adopting self-discipline (in at 7.30am, out at 6.30pm), taking up opportunity and following every tip they are given, who make the place, who make the place for academic rigour.