Not quite Jerusalem

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Despite its idyllic image, not everything is as green and privileged as you would expect, writes Jill Parkin

Think of Sussex and you probably imagine somewhere commutable but not Home Counties; somewhere a bit cut off but not quite as manicured as Surrey. Horsham, for instance, is top-end Sussex - all clipped leaves and mown lawns. It's all rather nice and cosy. Isn't it?

"Not all of it," laughs John Belton, who runs the Information Shop for Young People in the town centre. "We have drug problems, teenage pregnancies, and a few young sofa-surfers."

That's not a laptop game - he is referring to children who, while not sleeping rough, are no longer at home and sleep in their friends' front rooms. Belton doesn't claim deprivation on anything like an inner-city scale, but his shop for 13 - 25 year olds, is a corrective to the image of affluence that visitors to Horsham might presume. "Many of the youngsters just need information to help them sort out their gap year," he says. "Or talk over university worries. Others need much more."

Without sounding like Hercule Poirot peering over a privet hedge, not everything in this town is what it seems. This is certainly the case in the apparently timeless and privileged world of Christ's Hospital, a boarding school for more than 800 pupils. Despite its independent status, it has a healthy relationship with the local education authority.

Here, lunch is being taken. The children march from their houses into the quad and on to the lofty, wood-panelled dining hall. They wear Tudor-style dress: yellow stockings for both sexes; navy two-piece for the girls and long navy coat with breeches for the boys. They eat near a sizeable oil painting by Antonio Verrio; it shows Charles II flanked by bluecoat children in 1673. The atmosphere is heavy with tradition.

The school was founded for London street children by the philanthropic boy-king Edward VI in 1552 and much of the original ideology remains intact. The school takes pupils from all over the country, but the strongest links are with London. Too much money can rule out a place at Christ's Hospital for your child.

"About 40 per cent of our pupils' families pay nothing at all, though it costs around pound;14,000 a year to maintain and educate each child," says Michael Simpkin, the school's clerk, whose job is, in effect, that of chief executive of a charity that controls assets of pound;240 million.

What Christ's Hospital offers - with its boarding-only system - is the fulfilment of potential which might otherwise be squashed by difficult circumstances. And its results are impressive. The A-level pass rate is 98 per cent. In 2000, 65 per cent passed at grade A or B. All candidates sit an entrance exam and the 120 places allocated annually are highly sought-after.

But being academically able is not enough to get you in, says Patricia Gilbert, the school's admissions officer. "There has to be a need to board," she says. "That's an unbreakable requirement. We judge family income very rigorously. We're allowed to take only 3 per cent of our pupils from families who earn more than twice the national average family income."

It is a rule that means very few "old blues" are ever poor enough to be able to send their children to their alma mater - as they tend to be among life's successes.

The same is true of those who attend the single-sex Millais School, which has a more urban setting than Christ's Hospital. Christ's selects from a nationwide pool of needy children, but Millais has a local, fully comprehensive intake and does not even select the 10 per cent that its language specialist school status would allow.

This is a state secondary with a Horsham makeover, and it looks like a girls' day school. The prospectus also makes it sound like one. Millais girls wear their skirts between the knee and mid-calf. Games skirts must be embroidered with 2in-high yellow initials. GCSE results are high: 29 per cent of pupils achieved grade A or A* this year. Yet the headteacher, Leon Nettley, looks bemused to hear that his school looks - well - posh.

"It's a great deal to do with expectation," he says. "We set out clearly what we are trying to achieve and what we are about. Parents look at the prospectus and they buy into that experience. So do the girls. We're saying: 'This is what we want and this is how we operate.' "As for uniform and the like, it's about an understanding of self-worth and confidence. Most forms of employment expect you to wear a uniform of some sort, even if it's just clothes that make you look professional. The girls need to know how important self-presentation is."

The girls are articulate, even when explaining their resistant materials projects to a middle-aged reporter from the era of domestic science. But Millais pupils are used to speaking in a variety of languages. The school offers French, German, Italian, Spanish, even Japanese. Each year, a handful of girls take Latin GCSE, studied on a partnership basis with other schools.

"All the girls do two languages - French plus one - and some do three," says Mr Nettley, a mathematician by training. "I see our specialist status very much as offering the girls opportunities. I see it as basic skills, the key to a door. That's why we teach French in 12 local primary schools.

"For six years, we ran a bilingual business studies programme: we had 10 or so pupils sitting a business studies exam in Spanish - our seccion bilingue pupils. They're always convinced they'll never do it, but they rise to our expectations.

"We use languages across the curriculum, perhaps to help us address an issue of culture or understanding. Sometimes you can make a subject come alive by working with a school abroad. We have lots of e-mail links and lots of foreign exchange schools.

"We're a school with a lot of non-curricular activity and a strong tutor system. The girls get so enthusiastic about languages that they will do overtime on them. And whatever people say about girls, this isn't about wanting to please but about wanting to succeed. They come away from work experience with BA wanting to be pilots, not air hostesses."

Back at the Information Shop, which is run by the youth service under the umbrella of the county's education department, John Belton remarks that there are a lot of high achievers in this town. But it doesn't all happen by accident. People work on it.

Millais and Christ's are perfect examples of how it happens. But for the youth service things are running in parallel but further down society's ladder. For example, there is a housing project run with a local charity and a housing association.

"The housing association provides five self-contained residential units for homeless young people," Mr Belton explains. "The charity provides money for a worker to help them learn how to live independently. And we support and supervise the worker. After a year, they can cope and the council finds them housing.

"They're taught in a non-judgmental way how to look after themselves. They haven't always had the chance to learn the basics."

A super state school, a charitable independent, and a kids' help shop. If Poirot had peeped over these privet hedges all his suspicions would have been confirmed. Horsham is indeed leafy and lucky, but it's a lot more than that too.

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