Officers armed with top grades

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Not many people know it, but the army runs the second highest-performing state sixth-form college in the country, Simon Midgley reports.

THE PROSPECTUS dubs Welbeck College the "army's best kept secret". Its students get some of the best academic results in the country, but the Nottinghamshire boarding establishment is not well-known outside military circles.

Housed in magnificent listed buildings, Welbeck grooms the young men and women who will become the officer elite of the British army's technical corps.

The college occupies most of Welbeck Abbey, near Worksop, ancestral home of the Dukes of Portland, and has 320 acres of parkland and five lakes.

Exams are taken in an old ballroom, the former outdoor ice-skating rink is now a parade ground, and there are corridors embedded with metal railway lines. These once rushed food to the reclusive fifth Duke of Portland's table, in a heated truck.

Despite the eccentricities of their predecessors, the present inhabitants of Welbeck College score an average of 28.1 A-level points per student - making it the country's second highest-achieving sixth-form college after Hills Road in Cambridge and the 19th top state school.

The college also aims to develop leadership and ensure that the 200 students reach peak physical fitness, which means a packed all-day schedule.

Mornings consist of academic study and PE, while afternoons are devoted to sports and adventure training such as climbing. One afternoon a week is spent in military training. The college has an assault course, gym, climbing wall and firing range. The lakes are used to learn to kayak. Computer screens displaying bulletin boards dot the college.

Senior students can qualify as physical training instructors and then help instruct junior students in PT and basic military skills.

Time is also spent helping elderly and disabled people. There are two hours of prep every weekday evening.

Students are bright, articulate, self-confident and surprisingly mature. They are also well-disciplined and polite. All adults are deferred to as "si" or "ma'am".

The college draws most of its students from state comprehensive schools (some 80-85 per cent) and is keen to take more girls (it has 46 at present) and more ethnic-minority pupils.

Students do pay top-up fees - but these are low, and are means-tested: 40 per cent of parents pay pound;400 a term or less. The bulk of funding comes from the Ministry of Defence, which subsidises students by pound;10,000 per year.

Despite a bill for the MOD running into millions of pounds, the investment is considered to be well worth it. At a time when engineers are highly sought after, the army considers it crucial.

Major General John Sutherell, commandant of the Royal Military College of Science in Oxfordshire, said the college had a key role in ensuring that the army had enough officers with engineering backgrounds. Almost half of officers who train at Sandhurst need such expertise.

Also, evidence suggests that people who commit themselves at 16 to the army tend to stay on longer than other officers.

Some 400 applicants apply each year for the 110 first-year places. The college's entrance criteria include a minimum 15 points at GCSE, a B in the GCSE maths higher level paper, a BB in dual-award science and at least a grade C in English. Candidates must also show leadership qualities and a desire to compete and achieve.

At Welbeck, students study A-levels in maths, physics and one other subject, for example, electronics or chemistry.

Most students go on to an engineering degree at the Royal Military College of Science - now part of Cranfield University, followed by a year at Sandhurst. But some go to Oxbridge or other leading universities.

Once they have committed themselves to the army, they must spend at least five years in one of the technical corps which include the Royal Engineers and the Corp of Royal Signals.

Tony Halliwell, the college's principal, said that the MOD is considering whether Welbeck might also serve the navy and air force as well. "That would be a very exciting initiative," he said, "and a superb challenge."

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