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Now Boarding...

The Good Schools Guide newsletter gets a tour of Holyport College ­ – the new state boarding free school sponsored by Eton.

For a headmaster with a to-do list that must rival War and Peace (for length and complexity, if not Russian names), Walter Boyle seems remarkably relaxed as he shows us around his school.

Classrooms, still smelling of paint and new carpet, are as yet rather under-populated – so far there are just 122 pupils (a year 7 and year 9 cohort). The 55 boarders have cabin beds in bright, clean rooms, arranged around spacious common areas.

Holyport College, near Maidenhead in Berkshire, officially opened in November 2014 by the Queen, is a new non-selective state boarding free school sponsored by Eton College.

Mr Boyle, who was educated in Northern Ireland, joined from Wymondham, a successful state boarding school in Norfolk that was studied by representatives from Eton College and Windsor and Maidenhead Council. He’s an inspiring evangelist for this model of schooling, believing that it can transform outcomes for young people from all backgrounds: ‘It’s all about high expectations, a good school creates opportunities and opens doors,’ he says.

At Holyport all pupils have an extended school day that finishes at 5.30pm. This allows plenty of time for a co-curricular programme of clubs, academic extension activities and what Mr Boyle describes as ‘unashamedly competitive’ sport. There was a full fixure list from the start on Holyport’s own pitches and some rugby matches are played at Eton.

Eton’s involvement is profound – way beyond signing a few cheques and lending the odd rugby pitch. Eton has paid for ‘extras’ such as the head’s oak panelled study and landscaping the front entrance area. It has also lent (and insured) the original watercolours in reception: first impressions matter. Old Etonians have donated an all weather pitch. Details such as these, along with the uniform (crested blazers, ties, kilts for the girls) and the coat of arms (motto: aspire, achieve, succeed), serve to reinforce Holyport’s raison d’etre: high expectations for all.

Senior Holyport pupils attend talks and society meetings (like debating, theatre, economics) at Eton; Eton boys come over in the evenings and help Holyport pupils with sport, music and project work. Eton hosts regular art workshops and timetabled sports lessons including rowing at Dorney (the 2012 Olympic rowing venue) and Eton Fives. According to Mr Boyle the relationship between the two schools is ‘not a constant flow, but significant.’

Mr Boyle describes state boarding schools as ‘education’s best kept secret’ and he could be right. A boarding school education is popularly regarded as the preserve of the super rich, but there are nearly 40 mainstream state boarding schools in the UK. Parents pay for boarding (fees are generally £3,500+ per term) but tuition is free of charge. Most schools offer bursary support for a number of boarding places and, like other state schools, priority is given to children who are in care. Remaining places are allocated by geographical distance, meaning that most day pupils live just a few miles away. Families may apply for boarding places from anywhere in the UK, EU and further afield in the case of British passport holders.

There’s no typical state boarding school. Most are historic foundations, survivors of countless changes of government that have stood fast as educational dogmas come and go. Many also have fearsome academic reputations. They include nine selective grammars such as Reading School and Colchester Royal Grammar School and two sixth form only establishments: Welbeck, the defence sixth form college, and Peter Symonds College. Three other state boarding schools have been established since 2010, including the Wellington Academy in Wiltshire, sponsored by Wellington College.

Holyport’s current capacity is 500 but the school may expand to about 700 in the future. Roughly 45 per cent of the places will be for boarders. We spoke to a group of year 9s (just under half had joined from the independent sector). ‘What’s special about your school?’ we asked. ‘It’s like private school but free,’ they all agreed. And what did they think about Eton? They enjoyed using the facilities, especially rowing and the art workshops, but said class sizes at their own school were much smaller. Apparently Eton boys think Holyport’s food is better – despite the fact that the schools use the same caterers!

London Service

'Finding schools in London is a complete nightmare'.

Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants hear this every day. Those of us, like me – The Director of the Service – who were brought up in the capital and, again, like me, who have educated their own children here, are just thankful that we don't have to do it now.

That said, the nightmare has receded in some respects. There are more good state senior and primary schools than there were. When my children were the age to leave primary school, I could not have contemplated the local comprehensive. Now, I'd be delighted to save my money and send my children there. Stability, high standards, investment and a thoroughly sound ethic have worked wonders.

But London, especially for those who don't know the city and are not familiar with our admissions procedures and the rules and etiquette around the whole business of schooling, can be a nightmare. Every good school – state or independent – is enormously over-subscribed. Parental panic around schooling in the capital, which used to set in at around kindergarten stage, now seems to be rife in the earliest stages of pregnancy, if not before.

Many people coming from outside the city have heard of two or three schools but have no idea of the many dozens of other equally good ones. They imagine that if they cannot get their child into St Paul's, they have failed as parents and may as well give up any hope that Junior will one day get to a good university. They need us, gently, to take them by the hand and educate them.

So, we have just launched our new London Service. This offers families new to the city everything they will need in order to settle in the right neighbourhood, see their children at good schools, find local amenities like nurseries, drama clubs, sports classes. We can advise them about pleasant places to live, where roads are safe and leafy, where they will find the kind of home they like, where transport is good. We can guide them to lovely little local nurseries, home tutors or high-flying tutorial colleges.

The new London Service is like a knowledgeable best friend. We are always truthful – we will be honest if we know there is no chance of a place at a particular school. But we, unlike consultants working outside the city, have street-by-street local knowledge and will know where the less-known, equally good, schools are. The new London Service will provide everything families starting a new life in London will need.

Further information: The Good Schools Guide London Service

The Good Schools Guide Educaitonal Consultants director Susan Hamlyn.

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