Ship-shape scholars

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Their old school was buried under volcanic ash. Now these three girls have swapped the lava of Montserrat for the lawns of Suffolk at a public school steeped in naval traditions. And they've set an ambitious course for 14 A-levels between them, reports Wendy Wallace

The school seems stranded in time and place. It lies on the Shotley Peninsula, amid the luminous, flat beauty of the Suffolk countryside, contained by wide grey rivers under a vast pearly sky. Many of its traditions - pupils marching in miniature platoons into the "mess" for meals, prefects called "chief petty officers" - can be traced back 250 years. On 12 Sundays a year, children dress in naval uniform in recognition of the seafaring connections of an institution once known as the "cradle of the Navy".

All of which makes the Royal Hospital School near Ipswich seem an incongruous setting for pupils from the East Caribbean island of Montserrat where life for the 12,000 islanders has been thrown into turmoil by the eruption of the Soufri re Hills volcano.

Yet 18-year-old Cherise Howson, who arrived from the Montserrat capital of Plymouth in September 1996, says the 660-pupil private boarding school feels like home. "It's a community," she says. "It kind of reminds me of Montserrat because everybody knows each other, and they look out for you.

"When you go into an institution, you have to do whatever they do. It's quite okay. I like the green and the landscape - and the cold's not too bad once you've got your thermal underwear."

Cherise came to the Royal Hospital School with two other islanders on an academic scholarship. The oldest of four children, she is studying for five A-levels - biology, chemistry, maths, business studies, and general studies - and one AS-level in psychology. She then hopes to go straight into a five-year masters degree in pharmacology. She is already in possession of an awesome maturity.

For the school, the scholarships are a one-off, linked to their recent 300th anniversary (the word "tercentenary" rolls smoothly off the tongues of the head and staff). The Greenwich Hospital trust, which funds the school, agreed to pay for five Commonwealth scholarships, two of which went to Montserrat pupils.

"We had reservations about putting so much of our scholarship fund into one small island in the Caribbean," says Don Topley, an old boy of the school who returned to teach PE after 15 years playing cricket for Essex. "But the circumstances were so unique and scary, we threw the rule book out."

Since the volcano awoke from a 350-year sleep in July 1995, Montserrat's one secondary school has been buried under hot ash and rock and its technical college burnt to the ground. Seventeen-year-old Danielle Weekes had to sit her eight O-levels at the Vue Point Hotel in the island's safe zone. She passed them all.

Danielle has long plaits and a faint American accent. She had never been out of the West Indies before arriving in Suffolk. "I didn't really want to come," she admits. "It was scary leaving your home, your friends, your family, on your own, but I knew I had to."

She is studying for four A-levels and wants to be a journalist. Her parents are among the minority of islanders who have remained on Montserrat: with two-thirds of the country declared unsafe, only 3,500 people are still there according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Nineteen people died in June after returning to their homes in the evacuated zone.

Danielle's mother is a primary school head and her father a builder. "It is really hard to lose your home. I miss everything - the weather, my friends, my sort-of boyfriend." Letters take 12 days each way.

Despite some inevitable homesickness, the pupils have settled in well. They are praised in the Royal Hospital staffroom for their maturity and commitment - "a joy to work with", says Don Topley. The girls make more measured comments on the relative merits of education here and in the Caribbean. "The facilities at home would have been poor by comparison," says Cherise. "And you have the stress of being under the volcano, and doing your A-levels. That's one thing you really don't need."

Headteacher Nicholas Ward, in his expansive, blue-carpeted office decorated with paintings of ships, says the girls have something to teach the school. "I think that for three girls to come from an island in the middle of nowhere, to slot in and want to contribute is a tremendous example to our boys and girls who can perhaps take things too much for granted. As a nation, we do tend to whinge, but these three came from appalling conditions with smiles on their faces, and not only take from the community but give as well."

The Montserrat girls might feel uncomfortably like a charitable experiment were it not for the fact that about half the pupils in the Pounds 3,000-per-term school are on bursaries of one form or another. The royal trust that funds the school was established for the benefit of sailors and their dependents. Some 80 per cent of pupils' families have some seafaring connection, whether with the merchant or Royal Navy, and many pay reduced fees.

A hugely rich crown charity, the Greenwich Hospital trust was the inspiration of Queen Mary, wife of William of Orange, in the late 17th century. After her death, William of Orange founded a charity for "the sustenation of the widows and the maintenance and education of the children of seamen happening to be slain or disabled".

The school still operates under royal charter. In 1990, when the governors decided in view of falling rolls to go co-educational and accept children without nautical links, they had to get a bill through Parliament. "It went through on the nod," says the bursar. "At three in the morning."

The school came further up to date when it joined the Head Masters' Conference recently.

It is perhaps ironic that at a time when the Government is calling for well-resourced independent schools to extend a helping hand to their struggling state counterparts, the Royal Hospital School can more easily assist scholarship pupils from the Commonwealth than those from the local comprehensive, half a mile away. Pupils come from Holbrook High to use the school's Olympic-sized swimming pool while their more privileged peers are in prep; a shared careers convention is planned for the spring. But the archaic traditions of the school don't exactly foster easy mingling.

For pupils from the last remnants of the Empire there is less of a culture shock. Makheshe O'Garro, the third pupil from Montserrat, is doing five A-levels, including Arabic and religious studies to reflect her "lifetime interest in religion and language". She is enthusiastic about her new life as she sits in the head's study, making thick black tights and flat lace-ups look like a fashion choice rather than an obligation. "I really relish the change, " she says. "And in Montserrat you can't do French A-level or art. Here I can pursue what I really wanted to do anyway."

Makheshe has acquired a taste for English puddings in the mess, and has also got used to wearing cardigans. She talks about how she went "home" to Manchester for Christmas, where some of her family are currently living. "Wherever my mother is, that's home, and where I feel comfortable."

One day she hopes to help reconstruct Montserrat; meanwhile, beyond the flat horizons of the Shotley Peninsula, the University of London and its School of Oriental and African Studies beckons.

The Royal Hospital School has one remaining academic scholarship, available now, for a sixth form pupil from a Commonwealth country; applications to The Bursar, Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Ipswich, Suffolk IP9 2RX

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