Beyond (free) school: UCAS tips from LAE | newschoolsnetwork.org

Beyond (free) school: UCAS tips from LAE

London Academy of Excellence (LAE) is known as many things: the ‘Eton of the East End’, the ‘jewel in the free school crown’, the ‘Sunday Times Sixth Form of the Year’. Opened in Stratford, East London in 2012, LAE is the first sixth form free school. Founded by Kingsford Community School and Brighton College, and supported by a number of independent schools, LAE provides a rigorous A level curriculum to high-performing students in an area of deprivation.

LAE’s results often dominate August headlines; unashamedly proud to be a Newham school, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the media rhetoric, particularly over the past two years where all FSM applicant who met the grades were offered a place. But beyond the applause and accolade, LAE is much like any other sixth form. 

Claudia Harrison, Deputy Head Academic, is captain of the UCAS mothership at LAE, where I was a Head of House before joining NSN. Part of my job was to manage staff and students in my House through their UCAS journey. I don’t recall a single hour passing without a sixth former asking ‘do you know where Ms Harrison is, Sir?’. Claudia’s knowledge and experience of university applications is astonishing; her brain is an encyclopaedia of UCAS and the staff and students know it.

As the final deadline for applicants to accept or decline offers they’ve received approaches, I sat down with Claudia to find out her top tips for applicants and schools. 

  1. Start early: Contrary to some published advice, sixth formers at LAE are expected to start thinking about UCAS early. Claudia recommends keeping a record of lectures attended, books read, school events etc. throughout year 12. This can form a pretty strong foundation when starting a personal statement – in my experience, it’s also a fantastic tool for a referee highlight an applicant’s suitability.  
     
  2. Think outside the box: The most common concern I heard from sixth formers was deciding the right course. They normally fell into one of two camps: fixated on an institution or fixated on a degree. Claudia pushes sixth formers at LAE to think beyond A levels – that is economics with international relations over economics, law and anthropology over law etc. She also urges them to research applicant hotspots and university hotspots. Thinking about the best course – it’s content, format, staff – should be more important than the title of a university or its position in a league table. Similarly, it should not be presumed Oxford, Cambridge or Russell Group universities are the ‘best’ option; there are many fantastic institutions like Bath, Sussex and Loughborough, and those further afield such as Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Glasgow.
     
  3. Good + good = options I had countless conversations with sixth formers about life beyond university. For many, the assumption was that to end up in career X, they had to study subject Y – even if you didn’t really want to. Claudia is relentless in making sure sixth formers who aren’t applying for a vocational subject understand alternate pathways, and that a good result from a good university will open many doors to many careers.
     
  4. No grades, no UCAS It is easy for sixth formers (and staff) to obsess over UCAS. Claudia’s grip on university applications means her influence is calming for sixth formers (and staff). Her top tip here? Don’t let the UCAS process distract from A level study. It seems obvious, but UCAS is nothing if the grades aren’t good. She expects sixth formers to start year 13 with a good draft of their personal statement which can be polished and finalised early in the year. Less stressing over personal statements means more time studying.
     
  5. ‘I did it for UCAS’ A mistaken instinct of sixth formers is to try and do things just for the sake of mentioning it in their UCAS application. Claudia’s advice is to think long term. Though work experience is fantastically useful for soft skills, trying to fit in 20 internships throughout the summer break will only really help if it’s relevant to a vocational course being applied for, like medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry and engineering.
     
  6. PQA Claudia has a natural ability to spot how well a sixth former will cope at university and is open in thinking not everybody is ready for university at the end of year 13 – and letting them know that’s ok. A post qualification application, or PQA, can be a good option for some. Equally, some students fall into the trap of choosing an insurance option they don’t really want, or one where the entry requirements are so similar to their firm choice it simply doesn’t make sense. PQAs can be a good option here.  

All sound advice for applicants, but what about staff? I asked Claudia what she would say to a school looking to improve their UCAS process:

  1. Mr Stripy The affectionately named ‘Mr Stripy’ might be Claudia’s secret to success. Mr Stripy shows every player across the top – student, teacher, Head of Department, tutor, Head of House – with fixed internal and external deadlines down the side. Staff at LAE are trained early, deadlines are well known and they’re expected to start supporting potential Oxford and Cambridge applicants in year 12. For Claudia, it’s critically important staff see UCAS as a key part of the job in a 16-19 setting and not as a ‘bolt-on’ to teaching.
     
  2. PQA PQAs make the list again, only this time Claudia stresses the importance of having a good PQA process. Managing them can be a much bigger job than expected, particularly if the student has had more than a year out, or their teacher/tutor has left the institution.  
     
  3. Oxford and Cambridge? Claudia is unapologetic in wanting to schools to resist putting too much resource into Oxford and Cambridge applications. Her advice seems strange, seeing as LAE has been so successful in sending students to them both, but the logic is sound. For most schools, it’s a small number of the overall year group and shouldn’t demand such a strong focus. Claudia speaks highly of the support available through relationships with other schools, programmes offered by universities, professional bodies and a school’s alumni network. She also stresses the importance of avoiding pushing too many students towards Oxford and Cambridge if they are marginal candidates – it might be better for them to do so as a PQA, particularly considering the impact a rejection can have during the crucial Spring term. 
     
  4. No teaching, no UCAS Much like her advice for students, Claudia is vehement in ensuring staff don’t become be bogged down by personal statements and references. Again, it might be surprising to hear from LAE, but Claudia truly believes institutions should not get side-tracked by UCAS; if teaching and learning slips, UCAS applications risk becoming irrelevant.

In the past, LAE has been criticised for its entry requirements (initially five B grades at GCSE, rising to five A grades in 2014): in a school full of high achievers, surely it’s inevitable they will all go to top universities? From my experience, it isn’t that simple. Yes, most students at LAE are ambitious, determined and high achieving – but they’re also teenagers living in an area of depravation, often in receipt of FSM, often EAL, often first in the family to consider university (in many cases, first in the family to study A levels). There are so many barriers that could easily stop them from accessing further education, it really is amazing how successful LAE has been in supporting sixth formers university aspirations; Claudia (and Mr Stripy) should be proud of what everybody at LAE has achieved.

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