The summer school raising aspirations in disadvantaged children

The Telegraph, 06.08.16, reports on the summer school at HMC leading independent school King Edward's, Birmingham aiming to raise educational aspiration across the entire city.

Usman Raja still recalls when his smart new secondary school uniform provoked a lot of comment – not all of it positive – on the streets of Aston in Birmingham, where he lives. “People were pointing at me and saying: 'Is he from around here?’ ”

Aston is one of the city’s more down-at-heel areas and many of Usman’s contemporaries from the local primary hadn’t looked further than the local secondary. But he had aspirations, and was the only one in his year to win an assisted place at King Edward’s, a high-achieving independent boys’ school in Edgbaston, on the other side of city.

“For many of those I grew up with,” says this articulate 17-year-old, sitting in the King Edward’s canteen, “this school didn’t even figure on their horizon. It was a world away. But I remember when I had my interview here, they asked me why I wanted to come. It sounds cheesy, but I told them that I just knew, when I came through the doors, that it was the place for me.”

Usman goes into the Upper Sixth next month, and is spending the first week of his holidays working as a mentor at King Edward’s Summer School, encouraging others to follow his example.

The aim is to throw open those same doors to 135 bright 10-year-olds from deprived homes, from state primaries all around Birmingham, and give them not only a glimpse of the school’s state-of-the-art facilities but also show them how a good secondary education can change their lives.

“They ask so many questions,” jokes Lokesh Jain, another of the sixth form mentors, “but most of all they look up to us. Not in the way they look up to teachers, but as someone cool. If we can do it, so can they.”

In the ongoing debate about the role of independent schools, which make up seven per cent of our education system, they are often accused of contributing to the unequal society of haves and have-nots that Theresa May highlighted as she took up office as Prime Minister.

To offset such criticism, many fee-paying schools in recent years have set up schemes of assisted and free places.

At King Edward’s, chief master John Claughton has raised £10 million from ex-pupils (alumni include author Lee Childs, BBC boss Tony Hall, and naturalist Bill Oddie) to ensure that a third of the 120 pupils it takes each year either pay nothing or just a fraction of the £12,000-per-year fees.

But for Claughton, who will retire this year after a decade at the helm, that is only the starting point in tackling the challenge of social mobility.

“There are many independent schools that offer assisted places but then report that it is hard to fill them,” he says. “It is no good just making them available. You have to make it seem like a real possibility to potential pupils. I want children all around Birmingham to know that this is both an extraordinary place to learn and a very ordinary independent school.”

“I thought it was going to be really hard work, but it’s a fun place,” says 10-year-old summer schooler Kane, during a break from an English session where the class has been investigating a crime scene and interviewing suspects – all played by mentors. But he still felt intimidated when he was chosen to attend the summer school.

For Scott, sitting alongside him, it’s been the maths sessions that he has enjoyed best so far. He wants to be an astronomer and today has been the first time he has ever set foot inside a science lab. Others mention with enthusiasm the beekeeping session; the Harry Potter potions made in chemistry; and the trebuchet, a replica of a medieval catapult.

But with 135 attending, isn’t there a risk of whetting appetites for something beyond their reach?

Tom Arbuthnott, who directs the outreach programme at King Edward’s, shakes his head.  The summer school, he explains, is part of a bigger effort to raise educational aspiration across the entire city.

“What our best independent schools embody is excellence,” he says. “We want to take that excellence and sprinkle it like magic dust on as many young lives as we can.”

So sixth formers like Usman and Lokesh spend Friday afternoons during term times going into primary schools across Birmingham to run maths quizzes and stage debates, to encourage pupils to aspire to do the best they possibly can.

Arbuthnott accepts that King Edward’s has an advantage, as part of a foundation dedicated to serving the whole city of Birmingham that runs not just this fee-paying boys’ school, and the girls’ equivalent next door, but also five state-funded grammars and an academy. So it is effectively providing around 1,000 new places each year for those, regardless of their home circumstances, who are inspired to get a good education.

This broad approach persuaded Old Edwardian Wasim Rehman, now a successful financier, to back the outreach scheme.

“Just funding assisted places,” he explains, “is solving the wrong problem. The real challenge is levelling the playing field, for boys from the same background as me, in the 11-plus.” (Birmingham still runs a selective secondary system.)

Rehman’s Pakistani parents, who ran a corner shop in Aston, valued education highly, but didn’t know how to prepare him for the 11-plus, so he failed it and went to a local state school. His good fortune, he says, was to “sneak” into King Edward’s for the sixth form, which led to a maths degree at Cambridge.

“I come from a similar background to these children and know how much your life can be dictated by education,” he says. “If your parents are too busy to guide you, or unfamiliar with the system, there has to be something to ignite educational aspiration. That’s what outreach is about.”

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