Rugby England — Patrick Derham remembers the moment in October 1973 when, age 14, from a troubled home and planning to join the navy, he saw the course of his life changed, rather miraculously, for the better.
Out of the blue, he was offered a free place at an expensive private school. He took it, went on to Cambridge University and then served as headmaster of two of Britain’s most famous educational institutions. He was never told how he had been selected for the scholarship, but he has since tried to repay that faith in his potential by bringing more students from disadvantaged backgrounds — including young black teenagers — to some of Britain’s most elite places of learning.
Few institutions better symbolize social stratification and privilege in Britain than its top independent schools, whose origins date back centuries in some cases. Their former students dominate many spheres of British life, and half the members of the cabinet were privately educated, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who attended the nation’s most exclusive academy, Eton College.
Critics blame this system for some of Britain’s social, economic and racial inequalities; argue that such schools impede mobility; and want them to do more for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to justify the tax breaks they receive.
Some schools, prodded by Mr. Derham and others, are doing just that: taking steps to further diversify their student bodies.
“More and more of us are concerned by this polarization in society,” Mr. Derham said in an office at Westminster School, where he is the headmaster. “There is no point producing people who have only met people like themselves.”
In 2003, in his previous post as headmaster of Rugby School, Mr. Derham helped set up a program called the Arnold Foundation, which provided free boarding places for teenagers recruited from disadvantaged communities. He forged links with a London club for Afro-Caribbean youngsters, called the Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, which was started by a former prison officer, Ray Lewis, who was alarmed at the number of young black men ending up in jail.
Mr. Lewis had been inspired by a TV report about an academy in Baton Rouge, La., set up to improve prospects for young black men and influenced by America’s Prep for Prep, a program aimed at creating opportunities for black, Latino and Asian-American students.
Yet initially Mr. Lewis doubted that exclusive, expensive and traditional schools like Rugby were a place for any “self-respecting black guy.” It seemed “absolutely preposterous,” he said. “Boarding school? All you ever heard about that was beatings and buggery.”
Not only was he eventually convinced, but last year a student from Eastside, Michael Olorunlogbon, 16, became the 100th pupil to attend Rugby thanks to an Arnold Foundation scholarship.
Arriving at a school founded almost 450 years ago, with its quadrangles, cloisters and ivy-clad buildings, was “slightly intimidating,” Mr. Olorunlogbon conceded. But he now likes life here and thinks he is likely to make higher grades, secure a better university place and forge a brighter future.
“The teachers have more time for you — there is a small student-teacher ratio at the school,” he said in a large room next to the headmaster’s office. “At home, there are more distractions. I work harder here than I would at home, definitely.”
This is not always an easy adjustment, however. David Ejim-McCubbin, 23, said that when he went from a deprived district of London to Rugby School, he struggled to reconcile two “astronomically different” worlds.
“I left one realm, as it were, to peek into one that was — I don’t know how many — stratospheres above the one I was born into,” said Mr. Ejim-McCubbin, who has since received a degree in law and a master’s degree in legal and political theory. He now coordinates Eastside’s scholarship program.
The transition was so difficult, he said, that in his first months at Rugby School only the lack of a train ticket home stopped him from quitting. Other students were welcoming, but he recalls being treated like a curiosity, and once being surrounded by a group and asked whether he had ever witnessed a stabbing. (He had not.)
And in a country where accent can still denote social class, his problems included the rather fundamental one of how to speak.
“I wondered: ‘Do I speak the way I normally speak, the slang, the colloquials? Do I do that at Rugby just because it’s me? Is it me?’ All these questions came into my mind,” Mr. Ejim-McCubbin said. (He decided he could speak differently from the way he would at home, to make himself understood in a new environment, without being untrue to himself.)
The experiment at Rugby has spawned another program, SpringBoard, which places students from disadvantaged backgrounds in other boarding schools, including Eton.
All this has further stirred debate over the social effect of Britain’s private schools. Seen by supporters as beacons of excellence that drive up standards, they are blamed by critics for allowing well-heeled parents to opt out of state education, removing the incentive for it to improve.
Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, most of whose members work in state schools, argued that when exam results are adjusted for social factors, “students in state schools succeed as well as their peers in independent schools.”
“All children and young people should have access to a good local school, irrespective of parental social class and disposable income,” she added.
Peter Green, the current headmaster of Rugby School, said the school was now building on its history of charity, and adapting to modern times a long tradition of offering free places. For example, one of its best known historical figures, William Webb Ellis, who is credited with handling, rather than kicking, a ball here in 1823 and thus starting rugby football, was educated on a scholarship.
Nowadays, fees for a boarding pupil are around 33,000 pounds a year, about $46,000. When all free places and scholarships are included, Mr. Green said, 12 percent of students at Rugby pay nothing. He acknowledges that some Arnold Foundation students have had problems but said that, of more than 100, only two had left early.
Though candidates take an academic test to ensure they can cope, the idea is to take not just the very brightest, but also those who will benefit from boarding at the school, often because of their family situation.
“We may not be able to help everybody, but at least we can help some people,” Mr. Green said, adding that fee-paying students benefit from mixing with those from less privileged backgrounds. Rugby, he said, must not be “an extremely wealthy cocoon.”
At the Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, in London’s Forest Gate district, the founder, Mr. Lewis, explained how he aimed to help black youngsters take control of their lives through activities ranging from meditation to military drills.
A charismatic, if controversial, figure — he resigned as a deputy London mayor in 2008 over allegations of financial irregularities, which he denied — Mr. Lewis conceded that some students were conflicted after attending elite schools, perhaps after visiting the homes of new, rich friends where “the driveway makes your local park look like a garden.”
“We notice everything, from changes of accent to tastes,” he said, adding that one girl, now attending a boarding school, does not like going home. Pointedly, her mother had described her child to Mr. Lewis as “your white daughter.”
Nevertheless, most matriculate successfully, he said, and for students like Mr. Olorunlogbon, the benefit will not necessarily be just academic.
“He will improve his confidence, his competence and his capacity,” Mr. Lewis said. “I think he will start to believe that more is possible, and he will meet other people who are different to him, and therefore have an experience he would never have had if he had stayed around here.”
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