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A different form of life

Crossing the divide between state and private schools can be a challenging time for children.
Last year William Watts, 15, left pounds 2,545-a-term Bedford School to go to Sharnbrook, one of Britain's most successful state comprehensives.

When I left Bedford School I was surprised at the welcome I received at Sharnbrook. The atmosphere seemed warmer, maybe because it was mixed. Sometimes it felt as if Bedford didn't had a soul. When I asked directions I was sent the wrong way, whereas at Sharnbrook, people said, `Yeah, I'll take you' and arranged to meet up even if they didn't know you.

When I went to Bedford I was called by my surname. I found that really impersonal. At first, I didn't realise they were talking to me. So when I went to Sharnbrook I was used to people using my first name only when they knew me or liked me. But they all called me William and that made me feel that they liked me.

If people ask where I've come from, I say Bedford School and they say `Isn't that the public school?' There are a couple of jokes, not directed at me but about the general attitude of snobbery.

People seemed more superficial at Bedford. At Charnbrook, when they don't like your clothes it's because they think you look stupid, whereas at Bedford it would be because they didn't have a designer label. I had a friend on a scholarship whose dad was a bus driver. I was sworn to secrecy because if everyone had known then his life would have been made hell.

We do the same amount of work at Sharnbrook, but time management is better. I didn't get home until six at Bedford. Then I had dinner and did two hours or so of homework. By the time I had a shower it was 11 or 12. I was tired all the time. At Sharnbrook, I get home at four, do the same homework and I'm into bed at nine or ten. I don't go to school on Saturdays. I can go out at weekends. There's more social life.

"The teachers seem older at Bedford. At Sharnbrook they don't have as many Oxbridge degrees, but they seem more interested in the person behind the results.

Bedford's biggest problem is tradition. It won't break the link. I hated Latin - I just sat there chanting all that stuff. And I hated the blazer. It was so uncomfortable. Now I just wear a shirt, tie, school trousers and a jumper if it's cold.

I've been back to pick up a German prize. They said come in smart casuals, so I wore a white T-shirt, plain black leather shoes, black school trousers and a striped short jacket. The vice-headmaster said I might not be able to pick up my prize because I wasn't smartly dressed. He made me feel like a piece of rubbish. That tarnished my good memories.

Still, I'm glad I went there. It gave me the work ethic. Maybe it's because the school is selective, so it makes you work harder. But I think other people will move to Sharnbrook. They lead such a sheltered life at Bedford School. They don't try out things or go out on their own. They never meet a girl. I don't think I would have a girlfriend now if I was still at Bedfordn

Emma Taylor, 12, returned this week for her second year at Princess Helena College, a pounds 3,300-a-term boarding school for girls in Hertfordshire. Daughter of an Army officer, she has attended several state schools.

I had trouble fitting in. I wasn't sleeping. I was crying a bit. I rang up once and told my Mum I didn't like it and I wanted to leave. She said it was hard for them and it couldn't really happen. But in the end I really liked it here. Sometimes I feel sad. Normally I have a little cry and one of my friends like Vicky cheers me up. We just act like nothing has happened.

Boarding school is better for my education. There are only 15 girls in my class, compared with more than 30 in my last school. I can make better friends that I'll keep for a lifetime. The trouble with moving around a lot is that you can end up not learning anything.

At boarding school you get more done, work-wise. It's not the same as doing it at home. You've got all the books and there is always a teacher to help. And we can work together with friends.

At my last school I was at the top of the class and the teachers thought quite a lot of me. When I went to Princess Helena I went right down. I get confused with Latin, so I've given that up. I'm concentrating on my French. The trouble is I've needed glasses, which I got this summer. So I should catch up a bit.

I used to have no homework at state school and now I have loads. It's supposed to be an hour but I end up spending two or more hours every evening. I spend nearly all my spare time on projects in the week and sometimes the weekend as well.

The main thing I miss about Langdown is boys. Year 9 are allowed to go to a disco, but that's not till next year. Some people have boyfriends in other boarding schools who they write to. I've still got a boyfriend, David Yates, from my old school. We haven't dumped each other, but we can't write because we've both moved. I was too slow to get his addressn

Ten tips for school swappers

From state to independent

1 Expect the culture to change from child-centred learning to a desk- bound, teacher-centred, more authoritarian approach, which will suit some children but not others.

2 Be prepared for children feeling alienated at being called by surnames. The building may also be ancient, large and overpowering, at first, for your child.

3 Find ways for your child to meet members of the opposite sex outside school.

4 Be prepared for reaction against strict uniform rules

5 If you are not well-off, make sure your child never feels ashamed of himself or you.

From independent to state

1 Watch out for bullying, especially if your child is well-spoken.

2 If the school is less academically-minded, beware your child doing less homework, being pushed less.

3 If a child leaves because of financial problems, ensure that their self-esteem doesn't suffer, that they don't feel they are getting second- best.

4 Choose a mixed school. The presence of the opposite sex is the chief attraction to children of state schools.

5 Remember that lots of state schools get better results than the independent sector.