By Sue Leonard
Consistent outstanding scholastic achievement earns Queen Elizabeth's School in Barnet the title of Sunday Times State School of the Year 2007. In second place overall, this selective boys' grammar school, founded in 1573 by Elizabeth I, is one of the most consistently successful secondary schools in England.
An impressive 79.2% of all A-levels sat this summer gained A grades - almost 9% more than The Henrietta Barnett School in second place with 70.4%. Most independent schools can't keep pace either, with just 14 outperforming Queen Elizabeth's this year. The average pupil will achieve the equivalent of 10 A grades at GCSE, nine of which will be starred and will get in excess of three A grades at A-level. Nearly 90% of Elizabethans go on to Russell group universities and this year 20 won Oxbridge places. It is officially outstanding.
"It is not just an outstanding cohort of boys that achieve this result," says headmaster of nine years, Dr John Marincowitz, "but something that is built into the culture and ethos of the school. Academic achievement is an offshoot of a culture and ethos, not an objective in itself." Queen Elizabeth's, a foundation school, espouses a holistic approach to teaching that goes beyond the classroom and focuses on the rounded development of each boy. "My staff engage with boys in the corridor," says Marincowitz. "They talk to them about their aspirations and know them as people. It is not just about delivering good lessons."
Pupils are drawn from more than 90 primary and preparatory schools in north London and each year more than 1,000 vie for 180 places at Queen Elizabeth's, which lies in 30 acres of land bordering Hertfordshire's green belt.
Boys are admitted on academic merit irrespective of parental income, where they live, or their religion, which allows for a vibrant cultural mix of students. More than half of boys come from an ethnic minority background and nearly 40% speak English as a second language.
Our state school of the year in 2000, Queen Elizabeth's receives glowing reports from inspectors who praise the school's high academic standards and strong leadership. The traditional character of the school, its consistently excellent academic performance and its reputation and achievements in competitive activities are the overwhelming features that lead parents to choose it for their sons. Alumni include Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher's former spin doctor, and rower Tom Aggar, one of Britain's great hopes for a gold medal in next year's Paralympic Games in Beijing.
Queen Elizabeth's mission to make boys "confident, able and responsible" underpins pupils' education. Their seven-year development into decent young men of great potential, ready and prepared for life after school is the headmaster's raison d'etre.
"From our experience we know that they can surpass all expectations, even their own, if they have a clear view of where it is all heading," Marincowitz says. A system of bespoke tutoring enables staff and tutors to meet with boys on an individual basis to assess their personal growth as well as their academic progress. Each subject has to provide a clinic to support children who are not achieving at the expected rate, a club to allow them to pursue an interest, and runs competitions to make sure they are flying at the academic altitude they are capable of.
Music is a forte at Queen Elizabeth's, which has specialist music college status. Each year 20 places are awarded on the basis of ability in music. Five concerts on the school calendar offer plenty of opportunity for pupils to show parents how many strings they have to their bow. More than half of the pupils learn a musical instrument and each year they are expected to perform a solo piece to earn points for their house.
In addition to the ambitious curriculum (Mandarin has been introduced this year) participation in extracurricular activities is viewed as a key part of personal and social development. Opportunities range from public speaking and life drawing to backgammon and sport, for which Queen Elizabeth's boasts an enviable reputation. Boys have represented the school nationally or internationally in sports such as rugby, water polo, swimming and athletics. Pupils are also very successful at chess and debating while boys have represented Great Britain in science competitions.
Elizabethans are taught to think for themselves and are encouraged to turn beliefs into action through involvement in organisations. The watchwords here are commitment, ambition and responsibility, both personal and social. "I am concerned about the coarsening effect of popular entertainment and advertising on young people," says Marincowitz. "I feel that young people are becoming indifferent to broader politics and broader issues of social conscience. I think that is a great shame and my school is trying to get boys to take responsibility not just for themselves but for others."
Responsibility is given in year 7, when pupils arrive, and increasingly so up to the sixth form - an extensive programme involves boys in charitable work. Queen Elizabeth's supports a school in India with money raised by fundraising initiatives organised by pupils, which last year enabled them to sponsor the education of five children.
"Boys should grow up to be able to stand up for themselves in the world but also to stand up for causes that are greater than themselves," adds the head. "If they have an interest in the environment they should not just say they have read this book or support this cause but have a track record with an organisation, so that they can demonstrate practical involvement in the cause they feel strongly about to create a better society.
"I think to produce clever boys would be a limited ambition for a school such as ours. We need to produce clever boys who are going to do good. At our school not only is it cool to do well but it is cool to do good." The school's state funding mainly goes on teachers' salaries while new developments are generally supported by generous donations from parents, former pupils and charitable trusts. In the past 15 years the school has benefited from a new sixth-form block, music rooms and an art extension. Last year a £3.3m swimming pool was opened and a science laboratory has recently been completed. A multipurpose hall is being built.
The recipe here is a combination of high expectations, pupils being surrounded by like-minded peers and excellent teaching. "We have good teachers," says Marincowitz. "A lot of our teachers have been here for a long time, but we have a healthy turnover of bright young newly qualified teachers who come in and do three or four years and leave to take on heads of department posts or more senior posts elsewhere.
"People work extremely hard. Anyone who thinks teaching able boys is an easy task has not done it and does not understand it. A class of 30 bright 15-year-olds needs careful handling."
Marincowitz believes there is not enough funding for or focus on very academically able children. "High-achieving children are an area of relative neglect," he says. "We can learn a great deal from what makes them tick. Schools such as mine are relatively uncelebrated and underfunded. I think there should be more provision like Queen Elizabeth's for able children in urban areas where there is a high concentration of children. This is a wonderful milieu for able children. I just wish it could be replicated more."