by LAUREN CODLING
THE principal of an east London sixth form has dismissed the “preconception” that disadvantaged students cannot attend prestigious institutions, as the college attempts to help pupils get into some of the best universities in America.
Newham Collegiate Sixth Form (NCS) sent a number of its students to the USA last Saturday (19) for a tour of Ivy League schools – including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale – as part of its Ivy League Preparation Programme (ILPP). Under the scheme, students are offered the chance to tour the high ranking schools in the US and also seek additional help with the application process if they wish to pursue higher education stateside.
NCS was set up in 2014 by Mouhssin Ismail, who left his high-flying job in finance law, with the hope that it would offer high-quality education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Since its inauguration, the East-Ham based sixth form has seen success – earlier this year, it was named one of the top one per cent sixth forms in the UK. According to reports, it has seen 95 per cent of its students go on to attend top Russell Group universities in the past two years.
Ismail, known as Mr Ismail to pupils, has become known for his efforts in driving students to reach great heights in their education and beyond.
Dismissing the notion that only a certain “type” of student can attend prestigious institutions, Ismail believes that NCS has “shattered” the perception that the schools are inaccessible to those from less privileged or underrepresented backgrounds.
“When I went round assemblies (after initially setting up NCS), I told students that they could go to Oxbridge, Ivy League schools or even become the prime minister if they wanted
to, and you should have seen the looks on their faces – they thought I was talking nonsense,” he recalled. “But we’ve sent two students in three years to Ivy League schools, and it has demonstrated that you can do it – you just need a school that believes it is possible and teachers who can support you in the process.”
The head teacher, who was a winner of the GG2 Spirit in the Community Award in 2018 (hosted by Eastern Eye’s sister title, Garavi Gujarat newsweekly), said he wanted students to have high aspirations and added that offering the chance to apply for Ivy League schools was a way of conveying this.
“What better way to show aspiration than saying you could be a UK student going to an Ivy League School in the USA?” he told Eastern Eye. “It’s pretty much unheard of.”
As most of the NCS students come from families who earn less than £30,000 per year, Ismail was aware that it would mean that students’ would be offered scholarships by colleges in the US.
“If students manage to get in, then they will get their university fees paid for whereas in the UK, they’d have to pay £9,000 a year,” Ismail said. “It was a combination of trying to aspire and get our kids to go to Ivy League universities, and secondly, ensure they’d not pay anything for the school.”
The school supports students throughout the process, besides providing a SAT workshop with a special tutor, NCS also assists with any interview or application processes that the student may need to go through, in addition to helping out with fees.
“The whole cost of the American programme is paid for by us,” Ismail explained. “We want to
remove any impediments to them applying as it is quite an expensive process.”
Former NSC student Mohammed Isuf Ahmed was accepted to study physics and aerospace engineering at MIT earlier this year. Ahmed, 17, was offered places at both MIT and Harvard University. The teenager, who lived in a tiny flat with his mother and two younger brothers in east London, accepted a £250,000 scholarship at MIT, a position he took up last month.
The path to MIT came after he attended the sixth form’s ILPP. It gave Ahmed an insight into university life overseas, as he had the chance to attend lectures and meet current students. He realised that the highly prestigious Ivy League schools “weren’t places for the super-rich kids of the world.”
“I met and learned about people who had come from similar backgrounds and realised that if they can succeed at MIT, then perhaps maybe I can too,” he said.
Prior to the tour, NCS also arranged for a specialised SAT tutor to travel to London and meet students for a week-long workshop. For Ahmed, meeting tutor Alan Sheptin played a large role in his success story. He recalled the experience with Sheptin as the “best thing” that NCS
“I need to mention Mr Ismail too,” he added. “He believed in me and my ability to get into these universities when I thought I had no chance, and he pushed me to do the best I could.”
In 2017, another NCS student, Tafsia Shikdar, was accepted to study engineering and physics at MIT. It was Shikdar’s success that spurred Ahmed to choose NCS over other sixth forms.
“It’s nice to think that maybe other kids will now see both Tafsia’s and my story and be inspired to go to NCS and believe they can get into MIT or Harvard or any top universities too,” he said, adding that he had received a number of messages from people who were curious about his experiences.
Now that Ahmed has settled into MIT, he has described the experience as “sensational”. Calling it the “best decision he has ever made,” Ahmed has praised everything he has encountered, including the facilities and the people he has met along the way. He is feeling positive about his future.
He said: “I really feel like that in four years’ time I will be an expert in the fields I want to be an expert in.”
On what he would tell other students considering a move to the US, Ahmed emphasised that if “you get a chance to go, take it.”
“It will not only help you grow as a person,” he said, “but you will experience things and do things that you would never be able to if you stay in your comfort zone.”