Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, successfully petitioned his sovereign for a charter for "...the establishment of the Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth in Barnet, for the education, bringing up and instruction of boys in Grammar and other learning and the same to continue for ever”. Since that final “for ever” may well have been just a rhetorical flourish, he would probably be surprised to discover that the School thus established in 1573 still exists. Yet what is really arresting is not merely the fact of its continued existence, but that more than four centuries later the School is still delivering education according to the precise tenets of its charter.
It was Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward VI, who had created the national system of “free grammar schools”, both by reorganising existing schools teaching Latin grammar and by creating many new ones. They, like the School in Barnet established a generation later, did indeed provide a free education: that is, they offered free tuition to those who could not afford to pay the fees. But, the reality, of course, was that, 300 years before the introduction of compulsory education, few families could afford to forego the income from their sons’ labour.
Today, Queen Elizabeth’s School offers an education that is “free” beyond anything that Dudley is likely to have imagined. Its blue blazers are worn by boys of all social backgrounds, with 60% of them from ethnic minorities, and the School on London’s northern fringe is proud of the open access it offers.
The School was first established in Tudor Hall on Barnet’s Wood Street. This remained its base for more than 350 years, until 1932, when Hertfordshire County Council erected elegant – and much more spacious buildings – on Queen’s Road. In recent years, several new buildings have been added to the 30-acre campus. They include: the recently upgraded Heard Sixth Form Building; the Friends’ Music Rooms to serve the many musicians; the Olympic-size Martin Swimming Pool and the versatile Shearly Hall, which is the area’s biggest music venue. Work began on a new library and dining hall in 2011.
Having become a comprehensive during the 1960s, the School reverted to its former selective status as a boys’ grammar school in 1994. Since then, it has established a reputation for academic excellence, including exceptional results in public examinations at A-level and GCSE. In 2011, research by the Sutton Trust revealed that Queen Elizabeth’s sends a greater proportion of its students to Oxford and Cambridge than any other state school in England. The research also found that QE sends 87% of its pupils to the country’s 30 most selective universities and is thus also the top state school in the country for university placement.
Beyond the classroom the boys at Queen Elizabeth’s continue to excel disproportionately in fields as diverse as cricket, athletics, water polo, music and chess. The School invests a great deal of time and resources in extra-curricular “enrichment” activities. Its main sports are rugby and cricket - and all boys are encouraged to participate – but there are many other sports offered, including athletics, tennis, water polo and Eton Fives. Among a wide range of clubs and societies, the chess and debating clubs are both strong and successful in external competitions. Music groups also perform at an exceptionally high level at Queen Elizabeth’s School, commensurate with its specialist school status as a music college.
Thus Queen Elizabeth’s School’s modern-day success consists not only in the social breadth of its intake, which includes many boys from modest backgrounds, but also in the way it stretches even the brightest of these boys, opening up new intellectual and career horizons that were often only a dream to their parents’ generation. It is not just about the boys the School takes in at 11; it is about how these boys are transformed by the time they leave at 18.
From the day they first walk into the impressive main building past cabinets containing the names of some of their most illustrious predecessors, there is inspiration aplenty for today’s young pupils. Some of those listed have played rugby for England; some have made their mark as water polo internationals; others still have been selected to represent their country in Olympiads, pitting their brains successfully against the finest young mathematicians, linguists, chemists and chess players in the world.
But the inspiration of past glories alone cannot explain the academic success of the School and the social mobility it provides for the talented sons of ordinary North London families. To understand the causes of its modern success, one must look closely at how Queen Elizabeth’s School operates.
One of those causes is indisputably the School’s own high expectations. Led by the example of Headmaster Neil Enright, the staff quietly but determinedly expect the very highest levels of effort and application from all their pupils from the day they arrive at the School. There is also meticulous attention to detail at all levels of the curriculum – and indeed in every aspect of school life, including how the uniform is worn. “Early-warning” systems are in place both to help pupils who are struggling academically and to intervene when boys are beginning to kick over the traces. Parental involvement is considered an important element in a boy’s education at Queen Elizabeth’s School. Parents are expected to take a detailed interest in their sons’ work, not only ensuring that homework is done, but also steering them towards leisure activities that will stimulate their particular interests.
Another aspect that marks out Queen Elizabeth’s School is its emphasis on what it calls “bespoke education”. Boys can find one-to-one help in the lunchtime or after-school clinics in every subject. These are not just for boys who are finding the work too difficult: they are equally for pupils who are finding it too easy. There is no glass ceiling here: teachers are both willing and able to take gifted boys as far academically as they are able to go.
Queen Elizabeth’s is a school that cherishes its links with the past, its traditions sitting comfortably alongside forward-thinking leadership and developments that enable academic excellence and the rounded preparedness of boys for the Twenty First Century. As such it delivers its characteristically understated mission to ‘produce boys who are confident, able and responsible.’