When Mouhssin Ismail decided to throw in his highly paid job with a leading City law firm to become a teacher, his father didn’t speak to him for a week.
‘You could say that there was a pretty cold atmosphere for a while,’ says Mouhssin.
‘My father, Yousuf, was an uneducated man who couldn’t even speak English when he came here from India looking for a better life for himself and his family.
Mouhssin Ismail, principal of Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, with his pupils, who have got into top universities including Oxford
THE ROLL CALL OF SUCCESS
Proud principal Mouhssin Ismail (front centre) celebrating last week’s A-level results with:
1 Majida Begum, A*A*A, English, Cambridge.
2 Zarafshan Ashraf, AAA, Dentistry, King’s College London.
3 Saadia Sajid, A*AA, Law, London School of Economics.
4 Monalisa Saha A*AA, History, Oxford.
5 Ridhwaan Rob, AAA, KPMG School Leaver Programme.
6 Azher Chowdhury, A*A*A, Maths, LSE.
7 Zaeem Arshad, AAA, Dentistry, King’s College London.
8 Haseeb Akhtar, AAA, Medicine, University College London.
9 Juhal Ahmed, BBB, History, Queen Mary University, London.
10 Tanweerur Siddique, AAB, Social Policy & Government, London School of Economics.
11 Nihat Aliev, A*AB, Theoretical Physics, University College London.
12 Jorabar Singh, A* A*A*, Maths, University College London.
13 Huzefa Qamar, A*A A, Medicine, Imperial.
14 Abdulkadir Mohamed, A*A*A*A*, Natural Sciences, Cambridge.
15 Ashiqur Rahman, A*AA, Maths, King’s College London.
‘He always aspired for me to be a lawyer — and saw how hard I worked and how much I sacrificed to succeed. He felt that going into teaching was a step backwards.’
And today? Well, let’s just say Yousuf is about the proudest father on the planet.
For Mouhssin, as the principal of Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre in a particularly deprived area of East London, has not only achieved a set of A-level results that knock some of this country’s swankiest fee-paying schools into a cocked hat, but is sending 190 of his 200 pupils to Britain’s top universities, including nine to Oxford and Cambridge and one on a scholarship to the world-famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the States.
For these young people, who live in one of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK (child poverty is at 40 per cent), this achievement is nothing short of remarkable.
‘I’ve just Skyped Tafsia [Tafsia Shikdar, who is already in the States preparing for her studies in engineering at MIT] with her results,’ says Mouhssin when we visit him on A-level results day. Tafsia has achieved 4A*s and an A and her headteacher just can’t stop smiling.
You sense the school’s outstanding success — 88 per cent A*/ B when the national average is 53 per cent and the nearby posh £35,700-a-year Brentwood School (for boarders), in Essex, scored 72 per cent — is just beginning to sink in.
Ismail has not only achieved a set of A-level results that knock some of this country’s fee-paying schools into a cocked hat, but is sending 190 of his 200 pupils to top universities
‘Three years ago, when we set up the school and I said, “I want you to apply to an Ivy League University or MIT”, you could see the look on some students’ faces as if to say: “You’re crazy!”
‘Now I can go back and say: “It’s actually true.” Can you imagine the opportunities in life that these kids have now?’ He gestures to the 427 passport-sized photographs papering his wall.
Mouhssin knows each of his students by name. To see him with them today, sharing their tears of joy, their laughter and sheer delight is an overwhelming thing.
‘Without Mr Ismail, I would never have achieved this,’ says Saadia Sajid, an articulate and pretty 18-year-old, who with an A* and two As is off to the prestigious London School of Economics to study law.
‘My dad’s an Uber driver and my mum doesn’t have a job. When you come from that sort of demographic and say you want to be a lawyer at a top firm, people say it’s not possible.
‘But Mr Ismail has shown us it is. He taught me economics in my second year. He’s the reason I got my A*. He’s such an inspiration.’
Indeed, self-belief is as much part of the curriculum here as the 12 subjects offered to students. Take 18-year-old Abdul Kadir, who, with four A*s, is off to Churchill College, Cambridge, to study natural science.
‘I remember in the early days I was with my father at a parents’ evening,’ says Abdul. ‘My father doesn’t work because he has to care for my chronically ill mother.
‘He asked Mr Ismail: “Do you think my son can get into university?” Mr Ismail laughed. He said: “Can your son get into university? Your son can get into Oxford or Cambridge.”
‘I was quite surprised. I didn’t believe in myself then.
Mouhssin Ismail will stop at nothing to encourage his students to dream big
‘But Mr Ismail taught me to open up and to have enough of a character to get through the interview. He introduced me to people who coached me in how to approach the interview and impress the interviewer.
‘I was offered a place for two A*s and two As. I was so worried I wouldn’t make the grades. I am so delighted to get four A*s.’ And he grins fit to burst. ‘I’ve just told my mum. She was at a loss for words and then burst into tears.’
It is a truly heart-warming story, and one that is echoed throughout Newham Collegiate Sixth Form today.
Mouhssin demands only one thing of his students: to set their sights high. In return, he has badgered and cajoled some of the finest minds in the country to inspire them, including the former head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King.
‘They’ll go and give talks at the top public schools, so why not here?’ he says. The college also provides weekly Oxbridge tutorials, law work placements in Abu Dhabi, school trips to Japan and Washington and … well, you get the picture. Mouhssin Ismail will stop at nothing to encourage his students to dream big.
‘These kids work really hard, so I’m very privileged,’ he says. ‘The only challenge is providing them with the motivation they need when they might have dips.
‘That’s the struggle we have on a day-to-day basis.’
On occasion, Mouhssin, who has a 12-year-old son, Abdur’Rahman, and daughter, Kareema, eight, has gone to his students’ homes when they’ve failed to turn up to bring them into school himself.
‘I’ve only done it once or twice,’ he says, ‘but it sends a very strong message and the word quickly goes around. I’ve knocked on the door and said: “Why isn’t your kid at school? I need them to be there.” With the principal on their doorstep, they’re very apologetic.’
For make no mistake, while Mouhssin cares deeply about his students, he is not one of those touchy-feely, ‘call-me-Mouhssin’ types. Students must address him and his 35 teachers by their titles and surnames.
They must also line up before assembly, sit in silence, not use mobile phones and adhere to the school’s dress code.
‘The kids wear uniforms because it removes the issue of bringing the street into the school,’ he says. ‘I will be at the door every day to make sure that they are here on time — and if their uniform is not up to scratch, we send them home to get changed.’
In truth, I have rarely met such a well-mannered group of young people. The school, set in a stunning Grade II-listed building, is today teeming with ecstatic teenagers. You sense this is more of a family than an educational institution.
The teachers are all here in jackets, ties and smart frocks, to share their students’ joy.
Pupils at Newham Collegiate Sixth Form in East Ham celebrate after receiving their examination results
They’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into today’s results, regularly working on Saturdays and well into the evening should a student need their help.
‘Interestingly, we’ve had zero union action here,’ says Mouhssin. ‘I don’t even know who the union rep is. We have a working environment where we’re all here for one reason: to support the kids. If you set by example you get the respect back. We’ve never had to suspend a student.
‘When we set up the school, I always knew deep down what I wanted to achieve: to inspire the kids to go to better universities.
‘But we don’t want them just to become a banking or finance lawyer and then forget about the community they live in. We want them to be able to come back and support their community.
‘If we can get a critical mass of young people who are educated and affluent and who continue to stay in the community, in years to come the community itself will start to improve because they will place demands on the council about how they want to live.
So this …’ (he again gestures to the faces on his wall) ‘is about social mobility — allowing students and their families to climb the ladder.’
Mouhssin, 38, is the eldest of two sons born to immigrant parents in Newham. His father, Yousuf, the son of a poor farmer in India, insisted both boys studied hard to make the most of the education he had never had.
For Mouhssin he had two ambitions: to play cricket and practise as a lawyer.
Mousshin did play for Essex, was a member of the MCC and, after graduating from the LSE, began training at the prestigious law firm Eversheds. In 2005, he moved to Norton Rose Fulbright as an associate.
Married at 25 to Shaheen, a clinical pharmacist, his son had been born when he resolved to give up his six-figure salary to teach.
‘I worked with fantastic people but I think one thing I struggled with was, when you’re growing up in an area like this, everybody is like you — but when you work in a City firm that is not the case. Initially I found that quite difficult.
‘Sometimes you suffer from a crisis of confidence, and feel: “Am I good enough to be here?” It was things like table manners. Muslims eat with their fork in the right hand.
For me, going to dinners and sitting there not having had the experience of …’ He shrugs. ‘Everyone has their own little demons.’
Mouhssin had set his sights on becoming a partner of a law firm, and given his skills in the field of Islamic finance at a time the Middle East was booming market, he was in line to achieve his ambition. There was though, he says, ‘a hole engulfing you that leaves you unfulfilled’.
‘I’d gone to a comprehensive school and, as I began to succeed, I reflected on some of the people I’d been to school with who, because of their backgrounds, hadn’t gone to university.
I wondered whether if they’d had the opportunities of the largely white middle-class people I worked with, they would have succeeded.’
On occasion, Mouhssin, who has a 12-year-old son, Abdur’Rahman, and daughter, Kareema, eight, has gone to his students’ homes when they’ve failed to turn up to bring them into school
In August 2006, he was working into the early hours on a £50million interbank lending deal when he finally made his decision.
‘You do a deal which is great — it’s in the newspapers and on the firm’s website. Then there’s another deal and another deal. You are just on a wheel that goes round and round, but what impact are you really making?
Also, you’re getting into the office at 7.30am and leaving at 3am. We’d just had our son, and he’d be asleep when I left and asleep when I got home.
‘I come from a very loving family where my parents were always around, even though my dad worked incredibly hard. I wanted to be there for my child.
‘I didn’t want him looking back in a few years’ time and saying: “You gave me everything money could buy but you weren’t there for me.”
‘That night, when I left the office, I thought: “That’s it, I’m finished.” When I got home, I told my wife: “I’m not going to do it anymore.”
‘She said: “You must do whatever you want to do that makes you happy.” So the next day I typed up my resignation and handed it to my supervisor. I felt relief.
‘For a lot of people, when you’re in that lifestyle and getting a big salary, it’s very difficult to leave. I was lucky I didn’t have kids at a private school or a big mortgage.’
Mouhssin was, in fact, mortgage-free with enough savings to support his family as he trained to be a teacher at the UCL Institute of Education.
He got his first job teaching economics and business studies at nearby Seven Kings High School in 2007. By September 2012 he had been appointed assistant headteacher.
When he was offered the post of principal at soon-to-be-opened Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre in February 2014, he grabbed it with both hands.
‘The nine secondary schools in the borough wanted to set up a sixth form for the more able students so they weren’t having to go to neighbouring boroughs,’ he explains. ‘We wanted them to continue their education here, to drive the area forwards.’
The school opened in September 2014 with 12 teachers, 137 students and unfinished science labs.
This year, Newham Collegiate Sixth Form had 2,500 applications for 250 places. Mouhssin’s ambition is to send 20 students to Oxbridge in the coming year
‘That first day was very emotional,’ he recalls. ‘First of all, I was hoping the kids would turn up. These were students who were being offered places at grammar schools, independent schools and high-end sixth forms. Why would they join a start-up when we had nothing to show for ourselves?
‘But on the second day we took everyone to Cambridge to meet the admissions tutor and attend a lecture so they could see what they could aspire to. The word spread — particularly after we got two offers for places at Oxbridge at the start of our second year.’
This year, Newham Collegiate Sixth Form had 2,500 applications for 250 places. Mouhssin’s ambition is to send 20 students to Oxbridge in the coming year and more to top universities in the States.
‘Our kids aren’t going to come to us as refined or with the social and cultural capital of kids from Eton and Harrow, so we’re looking at more ways to provide them with opportunities and improve their communication skills.
‘I say to them: “You can be the next Prime Minister or a High Court judge. Just follow your dreams and focus.”’
In truth, I have no doubt that one of these bright young things will achieve just that.