How Eton made the running

How do you ensure that an academy school really does have something special to offer its pupils? Link it to fantastic facilities – and opportunities. Richard Garner reports
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The Independent Online

The boating lake is second to none. With an eight-lane course, and a world-class boathouse, Eton gives its rowers the best facilities available. The same is true of its cricket pitches. All of it conjures up an image of profound exclusivity.

Now, however, the school that educates princes and Tory politicians is about to share some of its campus with the masses. Eton College has gone into partnership with one of the Government's newest flagship academies which means that local state school pupils can use their fantastic facilities.

It will give Langley Academy, near Slough, in Berkshire, which opened officially last week, a unique selling point for a state-funded school with a comprehensive intake and pupils from almost 30 different ethnic groups. It can offer specialisms in both rowing and cricket. The academy also boasts an Olympic gold medallist, Andy Holmes, on its staff to encourage youngsters to take up rowing. He won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics as one of the UK's coxless fours rowing team.

Eton is one of only a few of the top public schools to have linked with an academy (others include Winchester and Wellington) and is proud of its connection. Headmaster Tony Little says: "We have personal contacts with the Langley Academy – not least through cricket and rowing. We have taken the view that we are happy to be involved with other schools where we have particular interests we can share – cricket and rowing are two Eton strengths."

And pupils at the academy are understandably enthusiastic. Aaron Swann, 17, the deputy head boy, is attracted by the rowing facilities – and the prospect of practising on Eton's Dorney Lake has ensured a steady stream of recruits for the sport.

Aaron was at the academy's predecessor school, Langleywood, which closed after it had been forced into "special measures" twice after failing inspections by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog. It could offer nothing like the facilities at the £23m academy. "I only started rowing at the beginning of last year," he says. "I thought it was different and something I'd like to do."

He is now planning to go to Loughborough University after completing an A-level and a B-Tec course and is aiming to study a combined sports and science degree. After that he wants to become a PE teacher, physiotherapist or team motivator.

Motivation is something that Langley Academy has in abundance. Bearing in mind that the pupils started their rowing just over a year ago, they finished a creditable third in a national indoor rowing championship which pitted them against teams from 100 schools – mostly from independent schools (many of whom had to drop out during the competition because they could not muster enough support to field a team).

"We didn't have that problem," says the principal Chris Bolwer, who is on his fifth state-school headship and has never had such a varied curriculum to offer his pupils. Girls are attracted to the sport too. "We haven't even had to make a conscious effort to encourage girls," says the school's director of sport Dan Clarkson.

Langley Academy was officially opened by another rowing legend, Sir Matthew Pinsent, last month and the strong emphasis on the sport is highlighted by the fact that Paul Mainds, chief executive of the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames, is on its governing body. He has helped the school foster a third specialism – museum-based learning. In fact, the whole school is decked out like a museum. Among the items on display are a collection of oars used through the ages and the actual boat used to win a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics.

Mainds is enthusiastic about promoting rowing at the school. Interest is the sport has snowballed with the success of the national team in the Olympics. "It has been Britain's most successful Olympic sport," he says.

But rowing is not the only link that the school has with Eton. The college is also letting Langley use its cricket pitches of which it has an amazing 27, all of which can be in use by Eton at the same time. Clarkson says: "We were allowed to use its cricket pitches for all our home games this year."

The academy has not yet played Eton but is optimistic that day will come.

In addition to all this sport, Langley is a specialist science academy, concentrating on the environment. Its new building promotes sustainability, which includes harvesting rainwater in a central tank for use in flushing the loos. As a result of the design, the school achieves one of the lowest carbon emissions rating of any school built in the City academies programme.

The academy is giving its pupils the kind of diet a comprehensive school of the past could only have dreamed of, according to Bowler. As a result of what it has to offer, applications from parents at this 1,100 pupil school have soared. There were 520 applications for this year's 180 places.

The school operates a strict banding system – taking 20 pupils from each of nine different ability bands – and is beginning to attract applications from pupils who otherwise would have gone to the local grammar school.

One of them, Jaswant Charma, 19, left Slough Grammar school to take her A-levels at the academy. "They had the courses I wanted here," she says "I didn't feel as happy at Slough Grammar. The teachers do push you here and they will make sure you finish all your work."

The wide open corridors of the academy have helped to eradicate bullying, which was a problem at the predecessor school. There is a vantage point on the balcony from which the principal can see what is happening everywhere.

Sponsored by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Martyn Arbib, Langley Academy also operates a house system, a way of ensuring pupils of all ages mix together. The house names mirror the specialisms of the school, so, there is a Grace house for the cricket, Henley for rowing and Darwin for science,

The school's specialisms are used in the curriculum. It organised a cricket week when lessons in a range of subjects were delivered through the sport. And the great wealth of literature spawned by cricket has been used in English. In addition the school offers the International Baccalaureate to give some of its talented pupils a broader curriculum. But it's the exquisite mixture of sport and humanities teaching that makes the school so popular. "Sport and the arts are what separates most people from the apes," says Mainds.

When David Miliband was Schools Minister and promoting the academies he often dreamt of the day when top private schools like Eton might sponsor them. Eton may not be offering sponsorship money but pupils at Langley believe what it is doing is of just as much value as far as they are concerned.

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