What next for Fortismere?

Photo: Martin Addison / CC BY-SA 2.0

NOBODY expects their old school to be just as they left it more than a decade later. We’ve all moved on from schools where loo roll was made of tracing paper.

The most technical lessons ever got in the early 1990s was watching episodes of The World At War on a top loading video cassette player during history lessons, as long as Miss could sort the tracking out. These days it’s all about interactive whiteboards and the super information highway thingy.

But what’s happened at Fortismere? Like most schools it’s had a physical facelift since I last walked out of the south wing, bulbous science labs and sports halls have sprouted from the grains of its Muswell Hill redgra.
More controversial are the changes you can’t see in the form of new buildings. Last week, headteacher Aydin Onac said he was leaving for another high-flying school in Orpington following five years in charge which are fairly described as stormy. As you would expect, the governors celebrated his stewardship of the school and told of how sorry they are to see him go. But he he won’t be getting a fond send-off from all quarters, not least the parents who were even more sorry than those sorry governors are now when he oversaw the introduction of a new rule whereby ten percent of places go to children who can show they have some sort of musical prowess.

Interestingly, another top performing school, William Ellis boys school in Highgate, has a similar policy, an admissions process which was unsuccessfully challenged by parents a few months back. It seems it’s all perfectly legal, even if there is a convincing argument to suggest that such a system could lead to families who are able to afford expensive musical tuition in their children’s primary years gaining greater access to the best schools.

So, what if you only get to see a French Horn for the first time when you reach Fortismere?

Fortismere also irritated parents further a couple of years back by moving to become a foundation school and the chance to operate outside of traditional local government system of control. That’s the historic system where all secondary schools are part of a family, in theory to make sure there is a spread of good education across a borough. It was inevitable that a few people were going to think that Fortismere was pulling away from the gang, thinking about itself rather than the whole of Haringey with such a detachment.

As one of the best performing secondaries in London, the school is oversubscribed every year. The catchment area was narrowing in the 1990s and has slimmed down even further through the noughties. There are now apparently wild differences in house prices where the map’s boundary runs out. The school has its faults: pupils can get good results by doing the bare minimum, the criticism is that they coast along preparing for exams without being truly challenged. Kids who could push themselves to great achievements are happy to do just what they need to move onto the next stage, A-Levels and university.

You can do five years of French, for example, remember it all for the exams, pass with a good grade, but never really learn and remember it. And then, years later, be stumbling around for the right words when a lost Parisian can’t find his way up the Euston Road. Maybe that’s just me.

For all that, Fortismere’s reputation is justified, good teaching, good grades, happy parents, including many middle class parents who use it knowing their children will get a good shot at passing their exams without having to undermine any philosophical opposition they may have to going private. Prime ministers and members of the cabinet don’t stride out of the school, but, hey, Emma Bunton was said to have gone there for a bit. And Dexter Fletcher, from Press Gang (see earlier post about the importance of that programme on any wannabe journalist).

The trouble is, a tetchy bunfight has developed where not so long ago the annual scramble for a place seemed manageable and all corners of the community seemed to stand a chance of getting in. When I was there people who lived halfway to Archway qualified. As the catchment areas has got smaller, however, the Office for the Schools Adjudicator has had to listen to more protests about admissions into Fortismere than nearly every other school in London over the last few years. You can see the cases by searching the decisions on the adjudicator’s website. None of them, it should be pointed out, have found a breach in the admissions code but that doesn’t mean parents are happy.

How many schools have to deal with a whole campaign group like Keep Fortismere Comprehensive – or KFC, the unfortunate acronym it became known as. The very creation of a such a group suggests something’s not right, this was the drawing of battle lines over our children’s education.

At its most fraught, parents passed a vote of no confidence in the governing body. For their part, those in charge of the school’s future felt they had been misrepresented and argued that the school just wanted more power over their affairs, particularly fund-raising.

Whichever camp you sympathise with, the divisions can’t be healthy. Look at the rage in the words of Lib Dem Muswell Hill councillor Jonathan Bloch, who told the Ham& High Broadway this week: “Aydin Onac will not be sorely missed by the community. He was the most divisive headmaster that could have been appointed to a comprehensive school in Muswell Hill.The governors should be hanging their heads in shame. Hopefully, the new appointment will mend fences in the community and make Fortismere the inclusive community school it once was.” Ouch!

A school should always be looking to improve, nobody can argue against that. It’s great to go into schools these days and see how technology has helped children. Thirteen year-olds know how to shoot and edit films and produce music on mixing boards in schools I’ve visited in Camden on press jobs. When I was at Fortismere, there used to be one computer in the corner of the classroom which whole maths classes had to share.

But did Mr Onac, a so-called ‘superhead’ who apparently collected £40,000 in a golden hello payment (remember: becoming a foundation school gives Fortismere more power over spending like this) push things too far. I’ve never met him but Fortismere didn’t need exclusifying.

He told The Times of his honorouble intentions two years ago, telling a sympathetic interviewer he wanted to “raise aspirations so that the student who says, ‘I’m okay, I’ll get my five Cs at GCSE’ starts to say, ‘Actually I won’t be satisfied with anything less than five As’.” Parents still read this as the school only being interested in Haringey’s brightest.

Maybe a school with enthusiastic, talented teachers like Fortismere should ultimately be just as eager to take on the challenge of helping those who get to the first year of big school without being able to spell their own surname as the children who are dab hands at the oboe before they have even enrolled.

It might be harder work but there must be just as much satisfaction for committed teachers. There are different ways of measuring the success of a school but what’s wrong with one where children of mixed abilities but equal determination meet, to learn together and achieve beyond their own expectations. It will be interesting to see if that’s the kind of school Fortismere wants to be in the future.

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