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It's not all about exams: A scheme set up by old Etonians encourages disadvantaged pupils to attend enrichment classes


In 1909, when four old Etonians decided that it was time to put something back into the community to offer fresh hope for teenagers from disadvantaged homes, they probably never thought their actions would still be having a profound impact on lives in the 21st century.

The four friends – Arthur Villiers, Gerald Wellesley, Alfred Wagg and Sir Edward Cadogan – thought that the best they could do for the youngsters was to give them a chance to succeed at sport by setting up the Eton Manor Boys' Club in the East End of London. They were, if you like, an early example of what David Cameron's Big Society was supposed to mean – those who hath, giving of their time and money to help those who hath not.

After the Second World War, the club's remit expanded to include giving help with education, perhaps as a way of adopting a more progressive and less patronising attitude towards the poor.

At the turn of the century, the name of the charity was changed to the Villiers Park Education Trust, in memory of the key role that Arthur Villiers played in its development.

Today, the trust offers a unique programme to persuade the brightest pupils living in some of Britain's most "forgotten" disadvantaged areas to seek places at the country's most selective universities. Essentially, it helps those who could be considered to be the "hidden" poor to lift their academic expectations.

According to Richard Gould, the chief executive of the Trust: "The starting point is: we want to help them develop a passion for their subject. And the way of doing that is by not getting them to do anything that's in their exam specification."

He cites research showing that pupils who take part in such enrichment classes away from the rigid exam syllabus end up getting better grades at A-level than their counterparts who sat in rows listening to teachers trying to "teach to the test". The best way to secure a top grade pass, Gould argues, is not necessarily by putting nose to the grindstone or sticking it in a book that just deals with the exam syllabus.

A survey of those who finished the Scholars' Programme last year revealed that 78 per cent gained a place at university and 71 of the grades they achieved at A-level were either A*, A or B grades. Eighty-six per cent said that the programme had bolstered their confidence and 89 per cent believed that it would lead to better job prospects.

Richard Gould, chief executive of Villiers Park Educational Trust (Teri Pengilley)

In pioneering the programme, which includes annual residential trips to the Trust's headquarters in the leafy village of Foxton, just outside Cambridge, and a five-day residential stay when pupils are in the sixth-form, the task was to identify the regions of the country neglected by many of the existing academics programmes aimed at helping disadvantaged students.

One of the first alighted upon was, appropriately enough, Hastings, which fits in with the agenda of the Chief Schools Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, of putting a spotlight on tackling under-performance in coastal and rural parts of the country that have escaped scrutiny because poor performance has perhaps been masked by the results of pupils from relatively affluent homes in the community.

Every secondary school and college in Hastings has been invited to sign up some of its brightest pupils for the programme.

"There's a very low higher education take-up in the area, particularly low to the leading universities in the country," says Gould.

The director of the Scholars' Programme, Jeremy Reynolds, adds that there are some "very sparky" young people in the coastal town. "But you kind of get to the town along the A21 by just wending your way through the last few miles after having been on the dual carriageway," he says, pointing out that it is almost like an afterthought that someone might want to visit. "There's not a lot going on there," he says. "In fact, some of the young people who live there have hardly ever even been to the seaside."

About 120 secondary school pupils from the town are enlisted on the programme, which starts in the first year of GCSE study and goes right through to A-levels. They all have mentors appointed from the town to discuss any problems they may have with their education, with the pool of mentors including an eclectic mix of people ranging from a youth worker to a professional dancer. Then pupils have an e-mentor – someone studying their subject who is already at university – with whom they can liaise.

Hastings student Imogen Piney-Willis (Teri Pengilley)

On the residential course, they tackle issues such as how to break codes and a day in the life of a media journalist, during which they look at the different slants that can be put on an individual story. They do presentations to the rest of their year group to show how they have tackled problems, which is a key element in boosting their confidence and the communication skills they will need at job and university admissions interviews.

There are also talks from current Cambridge undergraduates and an admissions officer to give them a flavour of university life and how to apply for a place.

"I feel sorry for the teachers at the schools because the syllabus is so dense they don't have the time to depart from it," says Gould. "They're risk-averse and they haven 't got time to do anything that's outside the syllabus."

Certainly, the students themselves appear to relish the chance to become more involved with their subjects. Georgina Berks, 16, a pupil at Hastings Academy who wants to study biology or biochemistry at university, says: "I knew I wanted to do something along these lines – science – but had no specific ideas.

"I'm now considering more top universities than I would have done. The Russell Group [which represents 24 of the country's most selective universities, including Oxford and Cambridge], for instance."

Imogen Piney-Willis, 15, a pupil at Helenswood Academy, also plans to study science. "I think this gives you the skills you wouldn't really learn in normal school," she says. "It makes you feel that you're not going to be overlooked because of where you come from. A lot of high-achieving students do get overlooked. Back at home, you do have people saying: 'I'm just going to go on the benefits system and stay at home and not do anything'.

"Here, though, it is good to have someone other than your family and your teachers saying: 'Come on, get on with it'."

Alex Bolton, 15, from St Leonard's Academy, who is interested in computer science and physics, adds: "I'd quite like to go to Cambridge now. Whether I'll get there is iffy, but if I don't try I won't. I've found I'm a lot more confident. I talk a lot more in class, whether that's just because I'm older or whether it's down to coming to Villiers Park, I don't know."

All three are agreed on one thing: mixing with pupils from other schools who have similar ambitions has helped them make up their minds that they want to succeed and go to university. There are no negative voices from less ambitious classmates in their ears.

Hastings is one of two areas of the country selected for the programme. The other is Swindon. Again, similar criteria apply. It is not an area that has enjoyed largesse when it comes to programmes being launched to combat disadvantage. The Trust expects to launch similar initiatives in two other areas soon, though it has not released details yet.

The four founding fathers had considerable success in setting up their boys' club a little more than 100 years ago: it produced successful athletes, boxers and rugby players; it was sited in the area that was later home to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford and was given due recognition during the 2012 Games.

The second phase of the programme, though, is proving to be just as successful in the academic field; important in ways that the foursome may never have been able to imagine when they began their charitable venture.