Eton pupils see how the other half are educated

In a unique project, students from the elite public school are tutoring disadvantaged local children. Richard Garner reports
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The Independent Online

It was the vandalised desks that first caught the eyes of children from the local comprehensive when they visited Eton. The wooden tables, dating back decades, had the names of scores of former pupils carved all over them.

"They had vandalised the desks," said Amandeep Virdee, 13, from Slough and Eton Church of England College, a comprehensive less than a mile's walk from the world-famous independent school. "It wouldn't happen here."

A group of pupils from six neighbouring comprehensives are part of a remarkable little experiment under way at Eton – one that has captured the imagination of teachers and the new Education Secretary, Michael Gove – and which looks set to be copied around the country.

Every Saturday the comprehensive pupils take part in morning school at Eton, where they are taught by masters from Eton as well as their own teachers. To qualify for the sessions, the state pupils must have a poor attendance record (less than 90 per cent), be on free school meals (the traditional indicator of being from a disadvantaged background), and come from a family with no history of anyone going to university. Six are chosen from each school to take part in the sessions.

"The boys and girls who come are ones the schools have identified as having some potential as yet untapped," said Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton.

The experiment, part of Eton's attempt to share its expertise with its neighbours, could soon be mirrored throughout the country. Mr Gove has said he wants to encourage the setting-up of Saturday schools for disadvantaged children to bolster their learning – based on a successful experiment tried out in inner-city New York schools.

As for the children from Slough and Eton Church of England College, they admitted to feeling a trifle nervous the first time they made their way through the portals of Eton.

However, it did seem to inspire them to be learning in such a historic environment. Sarosh Shah, 15, said: "I've always gone down that road [leading to Eton] and gone past the school wondering what it was like. I felt privileged as an outsider to be allowed in to learn."

The two-hour sessions at Eton tackle what the children call "big questions" – things like quantum mechanics and the shape of the universe – as well as creativity in story-telling and fairy tales. In one exercise, children were asked to bring an object such as a piece of fruit to the next lesson and then construct a drama around it.

One boy brought an orange – and had two people grappling for it, one of whom played a person who had not eaten for weeks and was desperate to get hold of the fruit.

At the end of the course, the Slough pupils and their parents were invited to Eton's Great Hall and given certificates to mark their participation in the classes.

The spin-off for the comprehensives can already be seen, according to Paul McAteer, the headteacher at Slough and Eton Church of England College. "Three of our children who took part had been excluded [for poor behaviour]," he said. "Certainly, since they've been on this scheme, I don't think we've had any problems whatsoever."

The pupils' attendance records had also improved, he added.

The Saturday morning classes do not themselves involve mixing with pupils from Eton. However, those who take part have established a rapport with some of the boys they have met at the school.

"I thought they were going to be really posh and snobby," said Matthew Lock, 14. "They seemed quite normal, though. I was wondering about their school uniform [the Eton boys wear wing collars] and whether they liked wearing it. They said it was a bit odd at first but they get used to it."

Preeti Sall, 13, added: "They're just kind of normal people – their attitude and behaviour is quite similar. You want to be kind of like them because they set a good example."

Mr Little, speaking at a seminar about the project held by the Company of Educators in London, confessed to being a little surprised that there seemed to be no sense of envy or outrage at Eton's facilities compared with those at their own school.

The differences between the two schools are stark. For instance, Eton has an Olympic-standard boating lake and 23 cricket pitches. Its old boys include 20 prime ministers – the most recent of whom is, of course, the present incumbent, David Cameron.

In addition, 71 per cent of its pupils get A*- or A-grade passes in their GCSEs. At Slough and Eton, the figure is a modest 1.5 per cent and – of its 918 pupils – 95 per cent are from ethnic minority groups.

Some children did think they should have the same kind of facilities the Eton children enjoyed. However, the overall impact of the Saturday morning schools appears to have been positive.

These sessions are not the only links that the two schools have. A scheme has just been launched whereby pupils from Eton come to Slough and Eton Church of England College to act as mentors to children struggling to get C grades in their GCSEs.

All the Eton pupils have A* grades in their own GCSEs and spend 90 minutes coaching pupils once a week at the comprehensive.

One of the Eton pupils, Jasmeet Sahota, 17, said; "Quite a lot of my family go to state schools and grammar schools in south-east London. It made me feel by coming here that I was keeping in touch with the kind of education they are involved with."

Charlie Lawrie, also 17, added: "The guys we are mentoring are borderline C/D grades. We are trying to turn what could be a D into a C.

"Our teachers have been fantastic and we just want to pass on what we have learnt from them."

This scheme, said Mr McAteer, has also helped some of the children from Eton to make up their minds about future career options. One is already training to be a teacher.

He said that the school had enjoyed links with Eton for several years "but they don't shout about it from the rooftops".

In a week when the Old Etonian Mr Cameron has been criticised in some quarters for being a "toff" and out of touch with reality – hardly an original charge – those involved in the state/independent school partnership with the 600-year-old college are applauding its attempts to shed some of its elitist image.