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Woodhouse College
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Principal's remarks - Open Day 2017

The following is a transcription of Principal John Rubinstein's speech to visiting students and parents at our open day on Saturday 18th November 2017. 
 
 
 
"I believe that this is the best place in London to come to study A levels. Our aim is to stretch and inspire our young people, both academically and personally. We are about academic excellence and personal development.
 
People ask if we are a specialist school, and we are. Our specialism is A levels. That’s all we do. No little ones doing Key stage 3. Our teachers don’t rush from a difficult year 9 class for a bit of a breather with the year 13s. And we are not an FE college – no adults, no part-time students or vocational courses. Just A levels, just enthusiastic students keen to do well and to progress to university.
 
The fact that we specialise in A levels means that we have a big range of subjects – and perhaps the key thing is that they can be studied in almost any combination. When I was at school I was desperate to take maths and history at A level, my two favourite subjects. And I couldn’t. Because they were in the same block: I could only take maths or history. Last year, with around 650 new AS students, not one student had a clash, not one couldn’t do the combination they wanted.
 
And the fact that we specialise in A levels means we have excellent study facilities – take a look today at our breath-taking library and two learning zones, and at our labs and other accommodation and our 3G pitch. And it also means that our staff are specialists too, experts in their subjects and in A level pedagogy and assessment. And you might be surprised at our class sizes too, the average across the college is just over 20 with no class over 24.
 
And it means that we specialise in advice and guidance in the university application process, that all our staff are involved, and that there is plenty of support and expertise – because 95% of our students go on to university, see us as a bridge to university - so we see it as part of the core of who we are. I don’t think you will find another school in London with better support for university applications than here.
 
 
People often want to know about myself. I have been Principal since January 2013. I have been a maths teacher for 30 years now, and I still teach. I teach because … because I think it is important for a head to retain some classroom contact, but mainly because I love it and would never want to give it up!
 
I have been until last year a part-time Ofsted inspector – I have been inspecting sixth-forms since 2001, two or three a year. Perhaps because of my Ofsted experience, I take a very self-critical approach to school leadership, never complacent, always looking for ways to improve. As part of that, we listen very carefully to views of students and parents – we especially welcome complaints as it gives us an opportunity to engage with parents and improve what we do.
 
And I am a Woodhouse parent. Both my daughters went to local schools and then came here for sixth form. As a result, I understand the experience from the point of view of parents and new students; the worries of students, for example, about making new friends and of parents that they might be making too many friends!
 
I would like to tell you a little about the College community, what it’s like here. Our students come from across north London, from over 180 different schools, one from this school, a couple from here, half a dozen from there. They are diverse in all sorts of ways …, but they are all ambitious and they are high achievers. They are here because they want to be here, because they want and expect to do well. They mix well, and form a supportive, friendly community in which all have a place. When you join the Woodhouse community, it is not like joining another school’s sixth form where you are the outsider – here, everyone is new together, and we are very proud that Woodhouse students make friends for life.
 
Our students are proud to be part of the College, and when they leave they are upset and tell us how much the college has meant to them. And they continue to be part of our community even after they have left, on twitter, facebook and our alumni organisation, many coming back to give talks and to mentor students.
 
We are quite a large college, most of our new students say. But actually overall we are only the size of a medium comprehensive school. Despite the fact that we have a lot of buildings and spread out over a large site, we are smaller than many of the schools you go to. Smaller than Ashmole, East Barnet, Mill Hill County, Fortismere, APS, Highgate Wood, for example. And we have smaller class sizes than many sixth forms, especially in popular subjects. But, of course, the year groups are big – because everyone is in Year 12 or year 13.
 
The feel is quite schooly in some ways – we have the same strong pastoral framework as a school, with registrations, notes from parents if ill, form groups, tutors monitoring progress, reports and parents evenings, just like a school. Students do not get lost in the system – why would they? After all, we are the same size as a medium comprehensive school.
 
And we are tough on students where their attendance or their work is not up to scratch. Perhaps I should spell that out: if you want to go to a college because you want to be left alone by teachers, left alone to do the work or not, left alone to attend classes or not, left alone to do your own thing like the adult you feel you are, well there are colleges like that. Woodhouse is not one of them. We will chivvy you and follow up on our concerns, and we will demand excellent attendance and all work handed in on time, and we will intervene if we think you are underperforming. We believe in a strong relationship with parents, and we get in touch where there are concerns. Our retention is very high – we don’t lose students – which says something about the support we give them, but also about the nature of our students, who are lively, ambitious and committed to success.
 
We are not an exams factory and our ethos is to provide a bridge to university and adulthood. We provide a huge number of opportunities for students to get involved in activities outside the classroom. We call our extra-curricular programme ‘Woodhouse Plus’. You can read about it in the prospectus. Students are able to choose from a large menu of activities including:
 
  • The extended project qualification
  • Duke of Edinburgh – Gold or Silver
  • Specialist career academies for business, law, medicine, STEM and others. These include speakers, trips, internships and work experience, support for university applications and tests
  • Oxbridge academy
  • Volunteering programmes
  • Many others, including various creative programmes
 
Plus a huge sporting programme involving teams and short courses and opportunities to try out different sports
 
Plus a wide variety of student led societies.
 
Our students are always quick to come forward with new ideas and to volunteer for activities and events. As a result, there is always something going on, always a cake sale in the social area, notices of events in our student bulletin. Lots of our students do volunteering, mentoring, buddying and charity fundraising.
 
I say we are not an exam factory, but of course the measure of a school is in their results.This year, our A level results place us second sixth form college in the country when measured by the A*-B (‘high grade’) pass rate.
 
We usually have a 99% pass rate at A level. In fact, so does everyone, because most schools weed out students at the end of Year 12 who are heading for failure. One of the questions you might ask as you go round schools is how many they lose at the end of Year 12? We lose hardly any students.
 
Beyond the pass rate, we usually have about
 
  • Two thirds grades at the high A*-B grades
  • 10-12 students to Oxford/Cambridge (hoping for more this year)
  • 15-20 students to medical school
  • About 60% to ‘higher tariff’ universities
 
I need to say something about the A level curriculum, which has changed. As you may know, A levels have gone linear.
 
This means that they are now two-year courses with the exams at the end of Year 13. Like they used to be when I was at school.
 
AS exams still exist but don’t contribute to the A level grade, and so like many schools, we have decided not to do them. Instead we will be able to use the summer for teaching and other activities, and we will have internal exams at the end of Year 12.
 
So: most Woodhouse students will take three A level subjects for the full two years. Some take four, just like they used to in the old days, but students will no longer drop a subject as they go into the second year.
 
To be clear, all universities except a few medical schools are making it clear that they will assess applications on the basis of three A level grades, that there is no advantage in taking four or in taking AS levels. Quite a few universities are bringing in their own entrance tests, and so students may have to do extra work, take extra time preparing for those entrance tests, which is another reason to concentrate on only three subjects.
 
We have taken the opportunity to increase the amount of teaching per A level subject. Our teaching time has increased by 20% by a whole extra lesson in each subject.
 
Many of you will need some help in choosing your subjects, especially now that most of you will be doing only three subjects. It is very hard to ask a 15 or 16 year-old to choose subjects which may determine the rest of their life!
 
My advice is this:
 
  • Firstly, if you are interested in a particular career or potential career, make sure you research carefully. Don’t just rely on hearsay and rumour. For example, every year students tell me they have heard you have to do maths for medicine, but it’s not true; it’s mostly not true.
  • Another example: if you want to do economics at university, you will need maths. All the universities publish what A levels they need for individual courses. Spend time researching them, and ask staff here today.
  • If you have no particular career in mind, choose subjects you are good at and you enjoy. Do not do a subject just because you have heard universities like it.
  • Do as much research as you can on subjects that are new to you – like psychology, sociology, philosophy, classics, etc. Find out what they are like.
  • The Russell Group advises that students take two ‘facilitating’ subjects – many of you will be aware of this. It is a good guideline but it is only a general guideline for keeping options open. Many students ignore it and still happily and easily get into RG and other good universities. Facilitating subjects are not a requirement per se.
  • Don’t assume you should only do facilitating subjects – not even the RG say that. A couple of years ago year we had a student last year got into Cambridge to study History. Her three A levels were History, Eng lit and Theatre Studies. Theatre Studies is actually a brilliant subject for high flyers because you learn self-confidence and self-esteem through it. I think it is easy to see how a subject like theatre studies could help potential medics for example.
  • Think very carefully before you take any science subjects – sometimes that doesn’t work out well. Only do science or maths if you are genuinely good at them, genuinely enjoy them.
 
When you start here, we will give you the opportunity to change courses if they are not what you expected. But it is always better to get it right in the first place.
 
You have a lot of choices for sixth form. You are lucky, living in London, with free bus travel, surrounded by a large variety of excellent sixth forms. That means a lot of opportunities for you, but it means you have to think carefully. And it’s an individual decision. The place that’s right for you is not necessarily right for your friend.
 
Do you want to stay at your own school? That is a good decision for a lot of people. You know what that’s going to be like. My son stayed at his sixth form and my daughters came here. All three would probably tell you they did the right thing.
 
Or you could go to another school sixth form. Many schools are under financial pressure at the moment, they have big holes in their budget. So they are looking to squeeze extra students (externals, they call them) into their sixth form. But it does mean joining someone else’s sixth form where you are an outsider. That’s not to everyone’s taste.
 
Or you could come somewhere like this where everyone is new together.
 
So, what kind of person is right for Woodhouse? What kind of person thrives here?
 
  • You need to be academically strong. Our average student has mainly As at GCSE
  • You should be genuinely interested in your studies not just to get the grades but because you actually enjoy maths or English of history and you like studying them. Like the Cambridge professor of English who visited us last year who said “every minute when she is not reading is a minute wasted”. Woodhouse students enjoy studying, enjoy the challenge of working hard and at a high level.
  • And you want to be challenged – both academically and socially – you want to develop as a person.
 
Finally, a word about our application process: our applications open today, online via our website. The deadline is in January. We are likely to get in the region of 4500-5000 applications – for 650 places, about 7 applications for every place. We are no longer interviewing, so we will offer places on the basis of your application and your school’s reference.
 
Our main criteria are:
 
  • Predicted grades
  • Distance ( we usually limit offers to around an hour and a quarter journey time)
  • Subject combinations
 
 
So – thank you for coming. Prospectuses available outside in the social area. Feel free to wonder around. Have a look at the library and the learning zones. Staff are in departments, ready to talk and answer questions. Around 400 students have volunteered to give up their Saturday to help and to answer your questions.
 
Your choice of sixth form is a big step, and so is your choice of subject, so think about what you are interested in, what you are good at, what will help you with particular career options, and go and talk to the right people whilst you are here.
 
Enjoy the day and the rest of your weekend."