Can state pupils benefit from getting a taste of life at their local public school?

Former Highgate boy Richard Garner finds out
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The Independent Online

It must be more than 40 years since I last walked anywhere near Highgate School on a Saturday morning. To say things have changed since my days as a pupil is an understatement. Firstly, it is now a flourishing co-educational day school, with 400 more pupils than it had in the Sixties. I knew it as a boy's school with boarding facilities and with Saturday morning classes that were compulsory for all the pupils.

Which brings me to why I find myself in Bishopswood Road, Highgate, north London, at 9.15am on a bleakish November morning. I am here to visit its "Serious Fun On Saturday" project – under which a group of state-school youngsters struggling with English as their second language get free coaching at this fee-paying school, and mentoring by Highgate pupils. Serious Fun On Saturday? The concept would have seemed alien to me. It was a heady mixture of Latin, maths and English lessons in the Sixties.

So why should literacy lessons be any fun? Well, it's in the concept. The visiting youngsters, from two academies in Brent, north-west London – Crest Boys' and Crest Girls' schools – do get two hours of literacy tutoring. As part of the package, however, they also get to play games and share Highgate's superior sports facilities.

The youngsters were given a range of sporting activities to choose from, but elected to play Eton Fives (it's like a game of squash played with your hands, for those who may not know it). Highgate have been the national champions for two of the past three years, but its star players were impressed with how quickly the Brent pupils picked up the game. The pupils from the two schools seem to be enjoying themselves. "At my school we always play football," said 12-year-old Hussein Hussein. "I like fives."

The programme is part of a non-profit initiative called SHINE (for "Support and Help in Education") which encourages partnerships between state and private schools and has so far set up 13 around the country involving more than 100 schools. They offer a range of subjects, from maths, science and English to critical thinking and enquiry and discovery.

"It's for pupils with poor English," said John Lewis, the teacher in charge of the project at Highgate. He is the school's community partnership director – a post we never had in the Sixties, when links with the community seemed to be confined to digging up old ladies' gardens (with their consent!) under the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the odd game of chess with a local state school (we always seemed to win).

"I offered them maths, but the feedback was that any problems they had with maths, the issue was really literacy," he says. Almost all – about 98 per cent – of the pupils at Crest Girls' school have English as a second language, their assistant headteacher, Sharon Hyare, informed me. Literacy in English is therefore a special challenge. Karen Norris, one of the Highgate teachers in charge of the scheme, says the key to its success is in instilling confidence in the pupils. "Many of them are very adept at learning. They know more than they think they know. They just need an extra hand." Karen is a housemaster at Highgate (yes, they do call her that) and rather different to the slightly fussy housemaster I had in the Sixties, who seemed to be obsessed with the length of my hair, insisting that the school's barber give me a short back and sides once a month.

She is housemaster at School House – where I boarded in the Sixties and which has been converted into an art and design block in which we are gathered for this Saturday's project. She taught in mixed comprehensives before coming to Highgate, and is also on the governing body of Crest boys' school.

Under the scheme being run by Rebecca Church and Alexandra Saunders, the boys and girls will be spending 10 successive Saturdays at Highgate, and will be assessed on how much their English has improved as a result of being part of the programme. They start off with a literacy hour, then it is down to the fives courts before returning for another literacy session. And they receive one-to-one mentoring from Highgate pupils a couple of years older than them, for further help them with their English. "It just seemed like a really worthwhile challenge," says Maddy Williams, one of the Highgate pupils on the scheme.

As with many links between private and state schools, the project's origins can be traced back to Andrew Adonis's time as Schools Secretary. He was anxious that private schools should either sponsor or develop links with academies, and enlisted the support of John Mills, now chairman of governors at Highgate and a contemporary of mine at Highgate.

The Serious Fun on Saturdays project developed during Adam Pettitt's time as headteacher at Highgate. "The response from our pupils has been brilliant," he says. "It's been really interesting for them, because it's the first time they've been used in a teaching capacity. With the scale of globalisation in the world today our pupils might think 'there is nothing we can really do'. But actually they can do something and they are doing something. I hope that when they go on to university they will put themselves forward as volunteers then."

Of course, Lord Adonis's plea for the independent sector to get involved with state schools was summed up during an address he made to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (the organisation which represents all the traditionally boys-only private schools – most of whom have joined Highgate in accepting girls). He said he wanted to see the independent schools' DNA rubbing off on the state sector. Some in the state sector took exception to that – believing it to be rather insulting to suggest that all the state sector had to do to improve was adopt the methods of the independent sector.

However, any suggestion that links like the ones developed between Highgate and the Crest schools are a one-way process is scotched by Sharon Hyare at Crest Girls': "It is a real opportunity for our boys and girls to access something with as good facilities as this. They are in a totally different environment – one they wouldn't normally have access to," she says. "It is probably going to open up opportunities for them and raise their aspirations.

"When I went back to the school after the first weekend, I was being approached by pupils who said: 'Miss, why can't I be on the project?' Even the boys have been to see me. It's not something that they feel that's being forced on them. It is really, really a privilege to be able to access things which we wouldn't have in a state school. We are 98 per cent ethnic minority (Somali, Eastern European, Brazilian) with very, very few white working-class pupils. It's very good for them to see somebody cares about them."

One spin-off from the project involves one girl from Crest who spied a piano and just sat down and played it during the first visit to Highgate. She turned out to be exceptionally gifted, and may now be given piano lessons at the school to develop her talent.