Ysenda Maxtone Graham

How Harris Westminster conquered Oxbridge

How Harris Westminster conquered Oxbridge
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Westminster School is being kept on its toes by its partner sixth-form college round the corner, Harris Westminster. There’s no imminent threat yet, in the ‘How many did you get into Oxbridge?’ stakes: last year, Westminster (private, £10,497 per term for day sixth-formers) got 71 of its pupils into Oxbridge, and Harris Westminster (state, £0 per term) got 36 in from a cohort about twice the size.

But watch those Oxbridge statistics draw closer to each other in the next few years, as Harris Westminster’s highly motivated and excellently taught students continue to soar, and Oxbridge colleges become ever more nervous of offering places to the (as they see it) over-entitled and over-advantaged privately educated middle classes.

How do I get my son or daughter into Harris Westminster? Well, you don’t. For a start, the teenagers do it themselves. Their motivation, not yours, is all. As James Handscombe, the principal, tells me, the 60-40 ratio of girls to boys is there from the moment of application because girls seem to be better at getting themselves organised to apply than boys of GCSE age. (Come on, boys, get out of bed and sort yourselves.) Applicants sit an entrance exam in two of the four subjects they want to study for A-level, and then, if they’re in the top 700 of marks for those, go for an Oxbridge-style interview. Last year, 2,500 applicants took exams for 350 places, which are conditional on getting at least six GCSEs graded 7-9 or above (A to A*).

Given up yet? It gets harder. If your son or daughter passes the exam and interview, he or she will be given priority according to disadvantage. ‘Last year,’ says Handscombe, ‘we had lots of appeals from people who’d done well enough to get in — often very well — but we hadn’t got places for them as we’re prioritising the disadvantaged.’

Many forms of selectivity, then, go into whittling down to the lucky few. The Free School movement made the academic selectivity possible and legal, and it’s replicated all over the country in hard-to-get-into sixth-form colleges, allowing students to thrive in an elite atmosphere of motivation and high achievement.

The reward for those who get in? As Handscombe wryly but truthfully says: ‘They work hard to get in, and when they get here they have to work even harder.’ Twenty-three hours of lessons per week, plus four hours of homework per subject per week (everyone does four A-level subjects, some swapping the fourth A-level for an EPQ in the top year). As at Westminster, there are Saturday lessons (but not every Saturday, just a few times per term). This is no place for the sleepy or lazy Xbox addict.

The school was founded in 2014 as a partnership between the Harris Federation (the charity founded by the visionary Lord Harris of Peckham, which runs 50 successful state schools in the London area) and Westminster School. Handscombe has been there from the beginning, invested in its success, and proud of its ethos as ‘a community of scholars’.

It seems a remarkably creative and kind partnership. The two schools swap ideas and share spaces (e.g. assemblies in St Margaret’s and the Abbey), and do talent contests together. Pupils from Harris go across to Westminster for Latin, drama, German and music, which the sixth-form college doesn’t teach. The system is helped by what Handscombe calls ‘the power of geography’: the fact that the schools are five minutes’ walk from each other. Other private schools have partnered up with state schools — such as Eton with Holyport College in Maidenhead and the London Academy of Excellence in Newham — but the extreme physical proximity of the two Westminster schools gives the partnership a huge advantage in daily practical terms.

Do the parents have to pay extra for all this partnering and sharing, I asked Handscombe, thinking of the parents who already pay their taxes plus the enormous fees? No, he assures me: ‘The agreement is that it is cost-neutral for Westminster.’

The fee-payers get the more romantic architecture: the eccentric buildings tucked behind Dean’s Yard in the shadow of the Abbey’s buttresses. The Harris Westminster students get a 1920s former office building called Steel House in Tothill Street. ‘A bit faceless,’ Handscombe admits. It certainly is: in the promotional video, all the low-ceilinged classrooms look the same apart from the subject-specific posters. But somehow the very oxygen of the Westminster location inspires and motivates. Handscombe hopes that, not long from now, the cabinet across the road will be populated by ex-Harris Westminster students who read PPE at Oxford.

His aim, he says, is not just to get students into top universities but to set them up for the next nine years, priming them for the harshness of job interviews and real life. ‘Our students are driven. They see that the world has exciting things to offer, but they know those things are not going to come naturally to them unless they go out and get them.’ They’re the opposite of entitled, in other words.

The large library, stocked from a generous donation from the Wigoder Family Foundation, is a silent haven, open from 7.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. so that students with difficult home lives and no private space to work can study there before and after hours. Breakfast is given to students living in emergency accommodation, or for those where an entire family including younger siblings is living in the same bedroom.

I spoke to Simrin, who has just done her A-levels (this year taken as internal exams) in maths, further maths, economics and politics. After a gap year, she’s hoping to read PPE either at Oxford or the LSE. Her enjoyment of her time at Harris Westminster is written all over her face, with its confident smile exuding intellectual fulfilment and the relief of meeting and working with similarly motivated kindred spirits. She applied from her local comprehensive, Wanstead High, and jumped through all the hoops. Her Muslim family came over from Bangladesh in 2005, her father now a pharmacist, her lawyer mother mainly at home and looking after Simrin’s four-year-old sibling.

‘It’s been an incredible experience,’ she tells me, ‘being at school with people not with exactly the same goals, but with the same drive as you: people who are passionate about what they’re doing.’

Among the highlights of the partnership with Westminster was doing a virtual talent contest (it was cut short by the ransomware cyber-attack on Harris Federation schools in March, as if things could have got any more dismal during lockdown); and going to ‘Chaplain’s breakfasts’ at Westminster School, meaning a very early start from her home in South Woodford. But it was worth it for breakfast and current-affairs chats with Westminster’s chaplain and students from both schools.

Private schools are finding it harder and harder to get their students into Oxbridge. Look at Eton’s numbers, down from 99 in 2014 to 48, and lots of public schools now struggle to get 20 or 25 in. High-achieving, elite sixth-form colleges like Harris Westminster are becoming the new unobtainables: establishments to add to the growing list of sought-after centres of excellence that the squeezed middle classes can’t get their children into.