The first rule of Write Club is: talk about Write Club

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Project feeds deprived students' hunger for cultural experiences

IT IS one of those phrases often said without expectation of a follow-up, but when Chloe Combi was told "If you ever need anything, give me a call", she jumped at the chance.

The speaker was Sir Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College. One phone call and much organising later, the independent Berkshire school played host to about 40 state-educated pupils at the first of what promises to be a series of summer schools.

The two-day event sprang from a seed planted when Ms Combi was teaching in West London. Concerned that many of her pupils had no access to the opportunities that better-off children took for granted, she set up Write Club.

As well as providing a forum to discuss books, plays, art, philosophy and politics, the after-school club at Villiers High School in Ealing hosted visits from author Nick Hornby, comedian Richard Herring and journalist Caitlin Moran, among others.

"One of the things that struck me when I started teaching there was not just the economic deprivation but also the cultural deprivation," Ms Combi told TES. "Some of the kids didn't even own any books and there was a complete lack of exposure to literature, art or the theatre."

The club quickly took off and regularly attracted 30-40 students. "It was much more popular than I thought it would be. There was a real hunger for it," she added.

After leaving teaching in 2012 to pursue writing full-time (her book Generation i will be published in March 2015), Ms Combi did not forget her ambition to provide cultural experiences for deprived pupils. So when she appeared alongside Sir Anthony on a television programme to talk about exam reform, she saw a chance to take Write Club to the next level.

"I said I wanted to turn Write Club into something that wasn't just a day but a festival," she said.

Sir Anthony put Ms Combi in touch with Ed Schneider, Wellington's director of development, and the result was Write Club, forming part of the school's Summer Experience this year. The week-long residential programme involved Year 10 students from neighbouring state schools, as well as from the Wiltshire academy sponsored by Wellington, being given a series of masterclasses and visiting an Oxford college. The idea was to provide opportunities, raise ambitions and encourage students to get involved in their own education, Mr Schneider said.

"The whole point of the programme is giving pupils a voice, and Write Club fitted right into that," he added. "I hope what they get out of it is a bit of self-confidence and enhanced writing and speaking skills - and a bit more aspiration.

"At the very least they will go back to their schools and say this was a fantastic experience."

The two-day Write Club segment attracted figures from across the cultural spectrum, including author Anthony Horowitz, scientist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, historian Bettany Hughes and actor Ashley Walters. The event also featured journalist and author Andrew Mueller, artist Dan Llywelyn Hall - whose portrait of Prince William was unveiled earlier this month - and writer and war surgeon Jonathan Kaplan.

"It was not just [about] giving them an amazing experience; there is also an element of levelling the playing field in giving them the sort of opportunities you only get in private schools," Ms Combi said.

Students were chosen to take part not on the basis of their academic ability but how much they would benefit. The residential aspect was a key part of the summer school, Ms Combi added, giving state school pupils the chance to mix with college students and to take advantage of Wellington's facilities.

"There is more of a culture of summer schools in the US, but we don't really do them much here, and it took the kids out of their comfort zone," Ms Combi said. "They learned a lot about themselves. They loved boarding and at the end they were in tears, saying they didn't want to go home."

The story does not end there. As well as a planned return visit to Wellington next summer, a monthly Write Club for state school pupils will be held at the college, with a new theme each time. A number of well-known figures have already agreed to take part.

"We want it to grow and we want to embed it to become a part of what we do," Mr Schneider said.

A number of other independent schools - including some "household names" - have also approached Ms Combi about getting involved. "I would really like to turn it into a network," she said. "It is something any school could do. It has really stimulated ambition and given these kids something to aim for. There is so little focus on learning for pleasure or for knowledge's sake [in education], and the experience opened up a whole new world for them. Hopefully this is just the start."

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