The headteacher defends his project of free sixth form “Etons du Nord” | sixth form

The principal of Eton University has said his plan to open three ‘Northern Etons’ in deprived areas of England will not have the effect of ‘skimming the bright kids’ from local schools, at least amid concerns of educators.

The world’s most famous private school plans to open free selective elite colleges in Oldham, Dudley and Middlesbrough by 2025 in partnership with Star Academies.

The announcement was met with a mixture of joy from local leaders and dismay from some headteachers. One said teachers were “upset and angry”, while another questioned the need for more services as colleges merge.

Simon Henderson, Eton’s headmaster, said the new sixth form classes – which would each admit 240 students a year – would “raise the standards for everyone” and close the gap between pupils who pass GCSEs but fail not to get good A levels.

He said: “Some critics say ‘well you’re just skimming the bright kids – those kids were going to do well anyway’. Evidence suggests that’s not really true.

“We hope that some of the partnership work we will do with 11-16 year old schools in the area will benefit all students at those schools, not just those who end up coming to [Eton-Star’s] schools.”

Pupils from the new ‘Northern Etons’ will be selected on the basis of GCSE results and background. Priority will be given to beneficiaries of free school meals, children in care, those from the most disadvantaged postcodes and those who would be the first in their families to go to university.

Henderson said a tough admissions policy was being developed to prevent middle-class parents from “gambling” the system to monopolize places. Proposals will be submitted to the government’s free schools scheme, a key part of its upgrading programme.

In what may be a relief for the teenagers in Oldham, Middlesbrough and Dudley, Henderson said it was “unlikely” they would wear the traditional Eton uniform of white tie and black tailcoats. However, he said there would be “certain characteristics of an Eton experience that we absolutely want to replicate”.

Students will be able to join debate clubs, learn Latin, be taught by Eton “beaks” in Oxbridge-style tutorials, attend a summer school at the 582-year-old institution. Schools could also take on the Eton name, although that is yet to be decided.

Henderson said the three areas chosen all had a gap between students doing well in GCSEs but failing to achieve strong A-level results. Each of the areas would need more sixth form services in coming years , he said, and were chosen in part because of their good transport links.

Arooj Shah, the leader of Oldham Council, hailed the initiative as a “game changer” for the borough and said it would benefit families “for generations to come”.

There are concerns, however, that elite schools only benefit a small number of already high-achieving students and do not improve outcomes overall.

Tom Richmond, director of think tank EDSK and a former policy adviser to the Department for Education, said it was “astonishing” that the government’s upgrade plans “include policy which, by definition, will only benefit ‘to a small number of students’.

He pointed to research showing that selective schools have no overall impact on levels of achievement in particular areas, adding that Eton should have instead shared its resources with all schools in Oldham, Middlesbrough and Dudley rather than ‘locking in their supposed expertise to a very small number of schools to benefit only to a very, very small number of students.

Darren Hankey, principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education, said he feared the plans would have an “adverse effect” on other schools and colleges in those areas which would lose students and staff.

He said ministers should instead better fund existing providers, including sixth form schools where per pupil funding has been cut. reduced by 25% in real terms since 2010, adding that the opening of new institutions seemed to go against government policy reduce the scope of higher education.

Another headteacher in one of the chosen areas, who did not want to be named, said teachers were “puzzled, upset and angry”. “If you said what’s at the top of my list to improve opportunities for children here, I would have turned 99 and still wouldn’t have mentioned a new sixth.”

Christy J. Olson