`We want to be a voice for poor kids'

11th July 2014 at 01:00
Headteacher of Eton-sponsored free school is going his own way

Growing up in Belfast in a two-up two-down house with an outside toilet and a tin bath, Walter Boyle did not imagine he was destined for a career linked with Eton College.

For one, his school career did not get off to a very illustrious start. He failed the 11-plus needed to get into grammar school, baffled by the verbal reasoning test. His modest dream of becoming a French teacher looked set to be dashed too, as his secondary modern did not offer O-level languages.

But in September this year, Mr Boyle hopes to provide inspiration to children from all backgrounds when he becomes the headteacher of Holyport College, Britain's first boarding free school, which is being sponsored by Eton.

It was Mr Boyle's background as a bright boy growing up in poverty and initially "let down by the system" that drew him to the school, which aims to draw at least one in five of its intake from deprived backgrounds.

"I didn't have my parents fighting for me: they didn't know how to navigate the system, they didn't want to stand up to the system," he told TES. "So that's a reason I'm attracted to Holyport, because we want to be a voice for kids whose parents maybe don't understand the system. I want it to be a school which opens doors and creates opportunities."

Based near Maidenhead in Berkshire, the school, which will serve pupils aged 11-19, attracted attention when it was first announced because of its high-profile sponsor. It is now set to open in September with 122 pupils, and although local parents from all walks of life have leaped at the opportunity to apply, it has been criticised for the fact that it charges boarders pound;10,000 a year - a standard arrangement in state boarding schools.

Students with statements of special educational needs, who are looked-after or eligible for the pupil premium, will make up 19 per cent of Holyport's intake this year, with bursaries offered to the children most in need. But Mr Boyle said the aim was to create a "mixed economy" - the school will also take 16 pupils from the independent sector. As would be expected of a school with a strong Eton connection, Holyport has been set up along traditional lines, with a strict uniform policy and a coat of arms. But could the connection prove a burden?

"I have a sense of responsibility for living up to the Eton brand, but Holyport College must be allowed to develop its own ethos and its own way of doing things," Mr Boyle said. "We mustn't try and replicate what Eton is doing."

But the Eton link is, nonetheless, expected to be indispensable. Already, it has agreed to provide part-time Latin and art teachers and it will pay for an academic to help develop teaching and learning at the school. Pupils will have use of the famous Eton sports facilities and benefit from pre-exam booster classes from Eton teachers. But staff will be from a range of backgrounds. Deputy headteacher Ben McCarey is coming from Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, South London, part of the Ark chain.

Having failed his 11-plus, how did Mr Boyle - most recently deputy headteacher of Wymondham College, the largest state boarding school in the country - finally pursue his dream of becoming a languages teacher before taking on senior roles?

"I told my headteacher, `If you can't let me do languages, you'll need to let me go to a grammar school,' " Mr Boyle told TES. "My mum smacked me in front of him and told him she was perfectly happy with the education I was receiving."

But the headteacher went away, spoke to the right people at the local grammar and, miraculously, he was offered a place. "In those days, that was an almost impossible thing to do, but he pulled strings for me and got me in," Mr Boyle said. "Had he not been willing to do that, I would not sitting here today. I don't know how my life would have turned out."

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