It’s a long way from the drab corridors of what was once one of Liverpool’s toughest comprehensives to the Olympic rowing lake, cobbled squares and 15th-century chapel of Britain’s most famous public school.
Andrew Isama has experienced life on both sides of the divide.
Today the 17-year-old is a scholar at Eton College, where alumni include David Cameron, the 19th Old Etonian prime minister, and Princes William and Harry.
Until 18 months ago, however, Andrew was a pupil at De La Salle Academy in Croxteth. Among its old boys is Sean Mercer, who shot and killed 11-year-old Rhys Jones as Rhys walked home from football practice in the summer of 2007.
Andrew’s mother, a support worker, and his father, a civil servant, tried hard to get their oldest son into one of Liverpool’s better state schools. Despite their efforts, however, Andrew was allocated a place at the Catholic comprehensive in Croxteth, even though it was five miles from his home and he had to catch three buses to get there.
“The only reputation it had was that the footballer Wayne Rooney had gone there,” Andrew recalls. “The summer I started Rhys was killed. My parents were really nervous.”
Andrew, who achieved the second-best GCSE results in his year, insists that his time at De La Salle was “enjoyable” and that he made good friends there. But he witnessed countless fights, in the playground and in the classrooms. They included one in a science lesson when he was 15.
“One boy had his eye socket broken,” says Andrew. “He had been pestering some guy and the guy gave him one in the face. The teacher came back into the class and saw this guy with blood all over his face, on the floor. The teacher wanted to get to the bottom of what had happened but no one would say anything. There’s an unwritten code. Everyone is too scared to say anything. The police could do nothing.”
Andrew is one of a growing number of boys from tough inner-city backgrounds who are winning places at Eton. Under the leadership of the head master, Tony Little — himself once a scholarship boy there — the number of heavily subsidised places at the £34,500-a-year school has soared. The school has always had 70 King’s scholars among its 1,300 pupils. Today one in five of the boys receives financial assistance worth at least two-thirds of the fees through scholarships.
Rohid Zamani, 18, is among these new Etonians. Like Andrew, he won a sixth-form scholarship to Eton, the first boy from a state school in Hull to do so. He fled his home in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, 15 years ago with his parents but can still recall terrifying events under the Taliban.
His most frightening memory is of a bomb exploding in the street outside the family home, showering shards of window glass over the bed where his mother had been lying moments earlier. The family’s journey to safety from the war-torn country was perilous but even when they arrived in Britain Rohid still had to endure racism and violence.
He shows me a long scar on the side of his nose inflicted when he was eight years old after being “jumped” by a group of youngsters he had confronted for bullying his sister.
One of five children, who lived with their parents in a three-bedroom flat, he attended the failing Pickering High School, which became Sirius Academy. “Pickering was regarded as one of the worst schools in Hull,” he says.
After getting the school’s best GCSE results, Rohid and three other pupils were told that they had reached “the roof of education in Hull” and should aim higher. He was encouraged to apply for an Eton scholarship and, like Andrew, won his place in the sixth form after several days of tests.
Not all Eton’s scholars have such dramatic stories to tell. Matthew Collins, 15, arrived on a scholarship from Northern Ireland three years ago. The only son of a Colombian mother and Irish father, he had excelled at his primary school but it took a couple of weeks to find his feet at the college.
“You get used to the bell that goes off at set times, for example to call you to chapel for reflection,” he says. “And the language took some getting used to — teachers are called beaks and lessons are divs.”
Glittering vistas beckon for bright children suddenly offered a fast track to prosperity and careers their parents could only dream of.
Rohid, who is studying science A-levels, wants to go to medical school and has also applied to American universities; Andrew, who is taking maths, physics and economics at A-level, is considering a business degree. Matthew, who is taking 10 GCSEs, is interested in finance and engineering. He also wants to go to a US university and would like to start a company.
But how difficult is it to settle into a boarding school with some of the richest kids in the world when you come from the wrong side of the tracks?
The best-known case of a private school giving a place to someone from a poor background is the story of Ryan Bell. When a television company making a documentary about his progress paid for Ryan, then 14, to attend Downside, the Catholic boarding school in Somerset, the council-estate child prospered at first, excelling at sport. Within two years, however, he had been expelled after a drinking session landed him in hospital.
However, since Ryan went to Downside more than a decade ago, private schools have learnt a lot about how to help children from different backgrounds settle in and how to support them in their new surroundings. Eton employs an access adviser: Francesca Moultrie is on hand to help with everything from booking boys’ train tickets home to supervising media interviews.
With proper support the new Etonians flourish, displaying resilience, intelligence and grit that have already got them so far. According to Tony Little, only one Eton scholar has really struggled and, paradoxically, he probably lived too close to the school, making it too easy to go home.
The boys’ passions also help them fit in. Andrew, a gifted footballer, plays for the college’s first XI; Rohid, once a talented rugby player, has become the college’s keeper of martial arts; and Matthew has thrown himself into rowing and Eton’s entrepreneurial society.
The crammed timetable of lessons, prep, arts, music, drama and sport leaves them little time to feel homesick.
Andrew says he found all his preconceptions overturned when he met his fellow pupils.
“There’s a perception all Eton guys listen to classical music and eat nothing but pâté. It’s not like that. Everyone is so normal. People have the same interests as me. I have friends here involved in music production, writing blogs. I used to do a bit of the music stuff.”
And there are benefits for the wealthy boys who still make up most of Eton’s pupils too, as Andrew points out.
“A lot of the pupils have never been exposed to anything else,” he says. “They have been in private schools for ever. They don’t go anywhere outside here, home and the Bahamas. They want to be successful but to do that they have to know how to get on with a range of people.”
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