'My 10 days at an Eton summer school was a real shock to the system'

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The Independent Online

This is Eton. We are on a course beyond school syllabuses: the Eton College Universities Summer School. On one highly frequented student forum, a girl summed up her experience: “Do it, do it, do it.” I was searching for literature summer courses, and decided to apply. The rest is history.

Lasting for 10 days in July, it’s a short but intensive programme. Freed from the dreadful syllabuses, with like-minded pupils who contentedly love literature, I learnt more than in the last six years of secondary education.

We dived into everything – J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, 18th-century satire, and on to inter-war poetry. We roamed with questions, exclamations, and a freedom to think. Not forgetting modernism, metaphysical poetry and Milton’s Paradise Lost (complete with a visit to his |cottage), the course was beyond anything I had previously encountered. That’s not to say I haven’t had some |brilliant teachers in my state education; I have, though they were hampered by restrictive syllabuses.

Eton’s boarding houses recreate the Oxbridge experience, with their colleges and communal meals. The course is intended for state-school pupils who aspire to Oxbridge, the focus being on students’ academic development. Inevitably, however, it will help anyone find a place on a traditional academic course. You can study one or two subjects, those you intend to study at university. I chose English literature, |because although I’ve applied to read English and French, all of my prospective courses are strongly literature-based, so the skills honed in English are transferable to my French.

With hindsight, I realise that it taught me time-management and self-discipline, which I hadn’t learnt at GCSE- and A-level, where coursework becomes a saga running for several months. English at Eton wasn’t easy, but since when is easy what we need?

It was a real shock to the system. I didn’t know that we would be covering so much material. Tutors encouraged us to look at the nuances of language in a way we hadn’t done before, and the library and teaching were incredibly stimulating. Several pupils came with friends from schools that routinely send their students on the course, which is non-profit-making. To make the summer school possible, Eton subsidises each student by half the cost of the course, even waiving the fee if necessary; last year it contributed £123,000 to the education of 120 state-school pupils. Those who truly win, whether in cementing an Oxbridge offer or not, are the sixth-formers. The academic benefits are obvious, but the course also demystifies the application process for Oxbridge and other top universities, from the personal statement to interviews.

In my practice interview, I discussed a poem with two tutors. We went on to talk about literature as a bigger thing: what is it for? Is it necessary? Rather than finding the interview daunting, I felt positive about it. I was allowed to admit that maybe literature was preferable to real life in some ways, and that, yes, we need engineering and practical things, but literature is my belief.

Of course, I had reservations. Eton sounded grand and imposing. From a mixed comprehensive in the North, how would I fit in? Would I get that much out of it? Wouldn’t I be annoyed by the sexism at a boys’ school? When I got the application form, the options were either “Miss” or “Mr”. I debated with myself, then replaced “Miss’”with “Ms”. I didn’t want this to harm my chances, but hoped Eton would take the hint.

The school I discovered was far removed from my imaginings, and although there were some things I didn’t like, such as scheduled “free time”, as a fellow-participant said, one of the best things was “having informed debates with intelligent people as the norm”. (He has since joined a debating club.)

If you’re a lower-sixth student who wants to live your subject, you’d be foolish not to apply.

The writer is an A-level student at a sixth-form college in south Manchester