Private Schools - England's elite head to East End

Eton students enter the foreign land of a state primary school

Irena Barker

Gallions Primary School is situated in one of England's poorest communities, on the far eastern reaches of London. Local landmarks include the Beckton sewage and gas treatment works, and planes from London City Airport roar overhead.

Eton College, meanwhile, educates the sons of nobility and millionaires for #163;32,000 a year per boy. Housed in historic buildings with its own Olympic-standard rowing lake, the school is a world away from the inner city.

But despite the potential for a culture clash, the two schools are pioneering an alliance that will allow students at both to get a glimpse of how the other half lives. Gallions is providing placements for 15- and 16-year-old Eton boys to work as teaching assistants and observe how children are educated in the state sector, discovering "a world they did not know existed".

When they return to Eton, the students will establish and run a fundraising scheme to support Gallions' music programmes.

All the boys taking part are from Penn House, one of 25 boarding houses at Eton. "It was interesting because the headteacher at Gallions had the idea that they could learn a lot from Eton, but it was clear to me that we had a lot more to learn from them than they did from us," house master Stuart McPherson said.

"I like the fact that there is the big age difference between our boys and the Gallions students. They are probably just 8 or 9, so it's more like being with a brother or sister.

"You don't have the awkwardness of meeting with older children of the same age, where the social barriers might be more pronounced."

The project is one of several partnerships that Eton is undertaking with state schools. It is one of a group of elite private schools sponsoring the London Academy of Excellence in Stratford, also in East London, and it is backing Holyport College, a new state boarding school near Maidenhead, Berkshire, which has a target of admitting 20 per cent of students from deprived backgrounds.

Some of the Eton boys were unsure what to expect when they arrived at the state primary school. "I was surprised by how many children there were in each class; it felt like a lot of children for one teacher to cope with. That was a shock," said Miles Kenyon-Slaney, 16, whose father works in Australian mining.

But he also praised the amount of artwork around the school and the friendliness and positive attitude of the teachers and students. "The teachers all loved their job and they dealt with everything really well," he said.

The first group of four boys took part in the week-long placements at the end of the summer term, but the programme has proved popular with Eton parents and more placements are scheduled.

Plans are being made for Gallions' students to make a return visit to Eton for activity days or to perform a concert.

"While they are helping Gallions to reach its goals, the boys will be learning a lot," said Mr McPherson. "When they make a pitch to a company to donate money and the answer is 'no', then they will learn that it's because their pitch is no good."

Paul Jackson, headteacher of Gallions, said it had been a "superb" opportunity to work with "one of the world leaders in education". "The Eton boys not only brought an incredible amount to Gallions but also learned a lot in their time with us. They spoke of this being a world they did not know existed."

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Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

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