State ambassadors: Brighton College's link with an east London school is making a difference

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The Independent Online

Nothing marks out the four sixth-formers from the rest of the pupils at Brighton College as they assemble in the imposing 19th-century chapel for the morning service. One, from last year's cohort, is a head of house and wears the academic gown of a prefect, the others are in business suits like the rest of the sixth form. All four arrived at the start of the lower sixth and have fitted in well. And why wouldn't they?

Well, for a start they have spent the rest of their secondary education at an inner-city state comprehensive. Second, they have come from a part of east London where money is a barrier to attending a £29,000-a-year private school. They have all won scholarships to the day and boarding school, which gets some of the best exam results in the country. But this is no rags-to-riches story. The teenagers see themselves as ambassadors for their state school and their part of London, which they say has been tarred by media hysteria about stabbings on the street.

"I'm proud to say I am a pupil of Kingsford and Brighton College," says Jorden Edgar-Oliyide, 17, one of this year's scholarship students. "The fact that we are here helps with the stereotypes. Everyone at Brighton College has been very welcoming and interested in what it's like to live and go to school in east London. We have been asked whether we have stabbed someone, and it's better that we are being asked these questions because we can say: 'No, most people in east London don't stab other people'."

In itself, the arrival of the pupils from Kingsford Community School in Beckton is nothing out of the ordinary. It's hard to find an independent school that hasn't got a story to tell about taking pupils in from disadvantaged areas, because that is what the Charity Commission wants to hear.

Private schools now have to prove they provide a public benefit to retain their charitable status and tax breaks. So far, the commission has focused on the proportion of fee income spent on free places, to the concern of head teachers who feel they provide a much wider benefit through sharing facilities and teaching with local state schools.

Brighton College's scheme is special in that it is a lasting partnership with a school 60 miles away and provides three free sixth-form boarding places, part-funded by HSBC, for students from Kingsford, an 11-16-year-old comprehensive where more than half the pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Richard Cairns, the head of Brighton College, is a governor of Kingsford, and Joan Deslandes, the head of Kingsford, is a governor of Brighton College.

Both schools have made the learning of Mandarin compulsory and share Confucius events. They run joint drama productions and concerts, compete on the sports field and hold joint Combined Cadet Force training.

But it is the scholarship scheme that the students say is having the most lasting effect on negative perceptions. "Being surrounded by all the stereotypes of east London, you feel that you have to go into a shell, seclude yourself and just hide and protect yourself," says Jorden.

"Kingsford is trying to push people forward so that, instead of closing their eyes, they look ahead and understand there are different places. People do live differently in east London to here, but they are essentially the same, with the same dreams. I can't think of any of my friends who didn't want to achieve and purposefully went down the wrong road.

"This link between Kingsford and Brighton College represents the idea that east London is just a small area of the world, and you want everyone to know that there are other things out there. People used to be really bad in terms of looking up and seeing everything around them, but nowadays everyone is opening their eyes."

What is it like to leave an inner-city comprehensive for a school where pupils take university for granted and think nothing of jetting off abroad to their second homes, I ask this year's three scholarship students in their comfortable boarding house.

Kris Shukla says that before he arrived at the school he thought there would be more of a class difference, and he would find it hard to adapt, but everyone had been really accepting. Though the fees are more than most people in east London earn in a year, more than 200 pupils get bursaries to help pay for them.

Classes are smaller, and there is wider information about your subjects at Brighton, but the teachers at Kingsford are just as good, says Issah Abdul-Moomin, the third of this year's Kingsford intake. "We had teachers who would stay behind after school for hours to help us with our GCSEs in the same way they do here," he says.

The problem with inner-city schools has more to do with pupils, says Anthony Vitanov, one of last year's scholarship pupils, who is head of his house and a prefect. His parents brought him and his sister over from Bulgaria to give them a British education.

"It's not that Kingsford is bad – it is a really good school," he says. "But when there are so many people that can't be bothered to learn and take the opportunity they have been given, it makes it really hard for those who do want to take it. People are scared to be what they really are. If you do well at school, it is not a nice image, so people try to be cool and even if they do well they try and cover it.

"Here you are encouraged to try everything. No one says you are a geek for doing this or that. I was very different at Kingsford. You try to be cool, to be quiet and blend in to avoid major attention."

The other three students, who were brought up in east London, want to defend their community. "Looking back on what you were helps you understand it a bit more," says Jorden. "We go back to Kingsford to help with seminars and other things. Going back, I am sure we can see how stupid we were in some of the decisions we made when we were younger. Everyone makes mistakes."