London’s Mossbourne Academy has 10 pupils on course for Cambridge University — despite being in the troubled inner-city borough of Hackney. Its head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, tells how respect for authority is the key to achievement.
Like a lot of head teachers this week, Sir Michael Wilshaw is sitting in an empty school, waiting on tomorrow’s A-Level results. Ten of his students have got conditional offers from Cambridge, another 70 are hoping to hear that they’ve clinched places at Russell Group universities.
The only difference between him and his counterparts at other top schools in the country is that he is the principal of a 1,300-pupil state-run, inner-city academy in run-down Hackney, literally a stone’s throw from some of the worst scenes of recent rioting.
“These disturbances weren’t just some kind of high jinks,” he stresses. “It was serious criminal behaviour, and for the most part, it was carried out by the gangs which have been allowed to fester and proliferate in our cities. And which operate on the very estates where large numbers of our pupils live.
“Kids here can talk eloquently on the subject of gangs. About how they are pressurised to join a gang from as early as nine or 10 years old. About how they are bullied and ostracised by their elders if they don’t.
“I can’t speak from personal experience, but one hears numerous stories about young kids being introduced into the gang culture through being made to carry out drug-running deliveries, or else acting as look-outs.”
It’s this environment which means that every day Mossbourne has at least a dozen staff out on the streets, escorting pupils to bus stops and railway stations. These smartly-dressed pupils look prosperous (which they’re not), and unfortunately that makes them a target for attacks.
So how, in this unfriendly climate, have he and his colleagues been able to create a school where education blossoms? Where 86 per cent of children get Grades A* to C at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education)? Where there are 1,500 applications every year for just 180 places? Where, in order to get into the sixth form, the majority of students have to gain seven grades A* to C at GCSE, and at least a B grade in the subjects they’ve chosen for A-Level? And where every youngster in Year 13 is going to university?
The answer is by having rules and sticking to them. First off, all the pupils are required to wear school uniform (grey blazers, red trim), and to wear it properly, no ties at half-mast; Wilshaw says there’s no point having a uniform unless it’s worn correctly.
Next, they are all required, at the start of every lesson, to recite a pledge: “I aspire to maintain an inquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive year, so that in this class, and in all classes, I can fulfil my true potential.”
On top of which, Mossbourne boys and girls address the teachers as “Sir” or “Miss”, and stand up, not just for them, but for any adult who walks into the classroom.
“The expectation is that every adult is to be accorded respect,” says Wilshaw, who spent half his teaching life at a Catholic comprehensive in Forest Gate, east London (where he was knighted in 2000) before opening up Mossbourne Community Academy in 2004, in a new building designed by Richard Rogers, replacing the former Hackney Downs comprehensive that was once labelled the worst school in Britain.
“Respect for adults is a given. Outside the school, I have been appalled at the way in which police officers are treated with contempt and disdain; that just should not be happening. We have got to get back to a situation where young people start respecting authority again.”
When Mossbourne first opened, Wilshaw encountered opposition from parents who questioned his strict approach to rules and discipline. These days, he says, he doesn’t encounter that attitude as parents realise that the academy is giving their children a chance of a good job and an upward move out of poverty, in an area where that kind of opportunity is in short supply.
“Yes, we ask a lot of the children and their parents, but in return, the crucial quid pro quo is that we guarantee a good education,” he insists.
Among his sixth-form students about to go to university is a young man, the son of a local taxi driver, who is going to read maths at Cambridge. There is also a single parent set to go to Cambridge.
“In many ways, the school acts as a surrogate parent; children stay here till six or seven at night on quite a regular basis, and we give some an evening meal, too. But we don’t for a minute pretend that we can change the lives these youngsters have at home. We aren’t social workers; we are teachers and, as such, it’s our job to provide the very best education we can.”
And becoming a good teacher is not, he says, a simple or easy process.
“The fact is, if you’re a 22-year-old teacher and you’ve got a tough class, you need to be well supported; you need your head of department sitting in on a few lessons, talking through ways in which you can improve.
“You also need support from your head. We treat it very seriously here if pupils misbehave with a new teacher. In my view, any head who fails to back up their least experienced staff members doesn’t deserve to be in the job. One thing we can promise our teachers — most of whom are in their twenties or thirties — is that they will get a full hour’s worth of teaching, and not spend it trying to maintain discipline.”
Indeed, pupils who misbehave in a lesson are given a detention that same day; they have to stay on till 6pm. For a more serious infraction, they have to do a three-hour detention on Saturday, and this time their parents are required (under the terms of the school contract) to bring them to the door.
“When children first come here, they find the structure and the expectations rather hard,” says Wilshaw. “But as time goes on, they themselves start to see the value of education, what it can do for their lives.”
There’s no question in Sir Michael’s mind that schools and the education system have an increasingly important part to play in promoting a fair and equitable multi-racial society. And he sees what he calls “the terrible incidents of these last few days” as having brought about a watershed moment, when the nation stopped making excuses for poor behaviour and poor achievement, and started looking to families and schools to work together for a more harmonious society.
“We have the potential in Britain, and in London especially, to be a shining beacon. That said, if we continue as we are, the chances are we will go the same way as America, whereby you get a massive flight away from gang-dominated areas, leaving behind a population made up solely of poor people and the elderly.
“We are currently at a crossroads. And we could go either way.”
Christopher Middleton is an award-winning British journalist, who blogs at:
His article is reprinted here by kind permission of the The Telegraph (UK), where it first appeared on August 16, 2011.