Sporting chance

The sports facilities of some of London's most elite private schools are being opened up to state-school pupils. Celia Dodd looks at a new trend
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It looks like a typical Sunday-afternoon swimming session - 25 children aged 10 through 15 jumping off diving boards and splashing about with floats. Then you notice there's not a boy in sight, not even a male lifeguard, and that the girls are wearing a strikingly modest mix of leggings, T-shirts, Capri pants and shorts with their bathing costumes - not at all the sort of gear you'd usually see at the local pool.

It looks like a typical Sunday-afternoon swimming session - 25 children aged 10 through 15 jumping off diving boards and splashing about with floats. Then you notice there's not a boy in sight, not even a male lifeguard, and that the girls are wearing a strikingly modest mix of leggings, T-shirts, Capri pants and shorts with their bathing costumes - not at all the sort of gear you'd usually see at the local pool.

But then this is no ordinary swimming session, and no ordinary pool. It belongs to St Paul's School for Girls in west London, where parents pay more than £11,000 a year for their daughters to gain access to such state-of-the-art facilities.

But these girls, by contrast, have only paid £1. They are a predominantly Muslim group who are bussed in from the council estates of neighbouring North Kensington to use the pool, sports hall and tennis courts every Sunday afternoon and on many days during the holidays.

Swimming is by far the most popular activity, and for good reason. It's the only chance most of these girls get to swim, because religious teachings, or their parents, discourage exposing their bodies to boys. In the changing room afterwards Haneen, 14, carefully pins on her fine black head scarf and explains, "I can't go to public pools because there are boys there. We tried to find women-only sessions but they usually cost a lot. Here we can choose the sports we like and there's no worry about boys coming in. Sometimes I do self-defence or street dance, and I've played football and tennis".

Her friend Eman, 13, adds, "I like swimming, and I also come to meet up with my friends because some of them aren't allowed out - but their mums trust them here." Their chaperone, Afaf, from west London's Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, is never too far away.

The scheme is one of several organised in London's most exclusive independent schools by the Greenhouse Project, a charity set up two years ago to run sports and arts activities for disadvantaged children in the holidays and at weekends, when facilities would otherwise be gathering dust.

In return, the independent schools are seen to be doing their bit for the local community. This is an increasing concern given the need to justify their charitable status - and its pursuant hefty tax relief. It's also in line with the growing trend towards closer collaboration between independent and state schools, which the Government is so keen to nurture that it has invested £5m in new partnerships.

St Paul's Girls, like many independent schools, has run community-service projects for years. But the schemes run by Greenhouse require professional coaches and huge amounts of administration, so schools are understandably happy to hand over the reins. Elizabeth Diggory, High Mistress of St Paul's, says, "I've always felt that we should share our facilities where we can and encourage our pupils to help those less fortunate. But it's true that lately we have become more conscious about logging these things.

"One of the difficulties for us is that we haven't got the infrastructure to set something like this up, whereas the Greenhouse Project has financial backing, which means it can be properly organised in a way that we couldn't do ourselves."

The St Paul's scheme is one of two girls-only projects run by Greenhouse; the other is for Bengali girls at City of London School for Girls on the other side of town. Greenhouse's head coach, Trevor Speller, explains, "We started these as girls-only simply because we found with our other co-ed schemes that the girls can get pushed out, and it becomes all football. In turn, the girls-only group at St Paul's has turned into a predominantly Muslim programme because they feel safest there."

His view about boys is shared by 10-year-old Kesi, who says: "I play football at school but the boys don't pass and they don't listen. They just care about showing off their skills. It's the same with karate - all the boys do is say, 'Look at this wicked punch.' "

Inside St Paul's cavernous sports hall, a 13-year-old gets one-to-one tuition in street dance, while another plays basketball with a coach. Outside, four teenage girls with scraped-back ponytails sit chatting after a brief game of tennis on the immaculate courts. They aren't Muslim, and they're not so sure that it's better with no boys; they drift off early to the cinema, disappointed that the trampoline wasn't up this week.

They came with Matt, a community development officer from the Westway Development Trust in Ladbroke Grove, which helps with the programme. What do they think of this place? "Posh," says Chelsea, 13. "It isn't anything like my school." If they do come back in the summer holidays it won't be because of the flash facilities - they're not that impressed, to be honest - but because they get on so well with Matt, Trevor and the other coaches.

Mike de Giorgio and Justin Byam Shaw, the former City businessmen who co-founded the Greenhouse Project, would approve. For them the Greenhouse projects are less about sport than "good values" - de Giorgio's favourite phrase. He says, "We're not about impressing the kids with the facilities but impressing them with our coaches and mentors; it's important that the kids look up to them. We're not trying to create better sports people. It's more like a youth club, where we're teaching the kids life skills and giving them self-esteem." Schemes that run throughout the year, not just during the holidays, are ideal because they allow coaches and kids to build up a good rapport.

When the first Greenhouse project was launched two years ago at St Paul's School for Boys - where de Giorgio's elder son is a pupil - much was made of the link with falling crime rates in the area. De Giorgio is not convinced, but he says, "One thing is certain: while they're on the programme they're not getting into your car because they're too busy playing football. The question is, when they go off, how much has changed? That is much harder to prove. I feel that if we can change one child and help him to become one of our future coaches, that would make a difference".

What drove two businessmen to set up Greenhouse and work for no pay in a field they knew nothing about? Like many middle-class parents in London, de Giorgio was aware that his family existed in a bubble insulated by private education and money. It made him uncomfortable. And when his eldest son, Alexander, 15, was mugged a few times, it made him even more aware of the need to try at least to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Two years on he says, "The kind of people we're dealing with through Greenhouse are alien to most middle-class parents; it's a different world and they just don't come across them. I think they're missing out on a whole pile of people, and that's why it's great for sixth-formers to get involved as helpers. I still don't really know these people either, but at least I'm interested in finding out a bit about them".

His philosophy is shared by staff at King's College School in Wimbledon, whose sixth-formers help at the summer project on its sports field (complete with marquee). The school's community-service programme is long established, but an added impetus came when the school took on the International Baccalaureate, which demands that all pupils do some community service as part of their qualification.

But Harry Chapman, the school's director of community service, insists the pupils' involvement in the Greenhouse Project is not merely pragmatic: "Clearly King's boys often come from quite protected environments, and it's part of their education to work in the local community. The reality is that if they didn't do this sort of thing they probably wouldn't meet kids from state schools. I don't think many parents would want their children to turn up at university not having had any experience of the real world. And sport breaks down the differences between different backgrounds."

De Giorgio would like his own three children to have the same opportunity. Alexander has already played football at many of the schemes, and de Giorgio hopes he'll spend much of his next summer holiday helping out. In two years the project has already grown beyond its founders' wildest dreams and now costs £300,000 a year to run, with funds coming entirely from fundraising and donations. In addition to holiday and weekend schemes in independent schools - many of which are completely over-subscribed - it now takes table-tennis equipment and coaches into disadvantaged state schools in the capital.

"A lot of the kids I meet lead the kind of complicated lives I've never come across before," says de Giorgio. "One 13-year-old boy who has been excluded is allowed back to play table tennis after school. He has no dad, his mum's in jail and until he was fostered recently he was looking after his younger siblings. He's become a really good player and table tennis has proved to be a very good way of talking to him. My aim is to get more kids like him to stay in the world".; (020-7603 5111)