`We're not trying to be Eton, but we borrow some things'

Sport is everything at free school sponsored by elite independent

Joseph Lee

Earlier this summer, a minor historical landmark occurred. The playing fields of Eton, on which the battle of Waterloo was purportedly won 200 years earlier, were for the first time marked out for a game of rounders.

Opening up Eton to two new cultural forces - state school pupils and girls - was just one of the consequences of the private school's decision to sponsor a new free school with boarding, Holyport College in Berkshire. "It was funny watching the groundsmen get to grips with a rounders pitch," says Holyport's director of sport, Adam Bicknell.

According to staff at the new school, which opened last September to 123 day and boarding pupils on a site seven miles from Eton, the impact on their students has been even more profound.

Holyport aims to provide pupils from all backgrounds with the equivalent of a private education; using the world-class Eton facilities is one of the perks.

"A student from a disadvantaged family, where neither parent works, who's on free school meals and the pupil premium, is essentially getting the independent school experience at Holyport," says Ben McCarey, Holyport's deputy headteacher.

What that means is an ethos built on competitiveness, whether in sport or exams.

And there are plenty of opportunities to compete: in its first year, Holyport played more than 240 fixtures against other institutions, from local comprehensives to private schools such as Harrow. It plans to double that number from September.

Speaking the same language

Holyport has also adopted an intense system of internal exams, which take place three times a year and adopt a name from Eton: trials.

In another tradition borrowed from the public school, called "reading over", the names of the top 10 students in each subject and the top 10 in aggregate are read out to the whole school to honour their success.

"We celebrate progress, we celebrate attitude and effort, but we also celebrate attainment in its rawest form," says Mr McCarey. "The kids are highly competitive to get on to those lists."

Headteacher Walter Boyle adds: "You come here because you want to do well in life, at whatever you do. We frown on mediocrity. We haven't borrowed too many things, we're really not trying to be a mini Eton, but we borrow some of the vocabulary and traditions."

Holyport is proud of its traditionalism. When we enter a classroom, students stand to attention. Perhaps less traditionally, Mr Boyle asks the class, "Who's the best headteacher in Berkshire?" They chorus back by rote: "Mr Boyle!" With staff and pupils spending so much time with each other, they value being able to joke together.

Like private schools, Holyport blends its traditionalism with inspiration from progressive education and the state sector - an approach Mr Boyle calls "bilingual". Among those ideas is Carol Dweck's research on the growth mindset.

"We are competitive, but it's not all about winning: it's about putting your best in," Mr McCarey says. "We have a lot of students who traditionally wouldn't be sporty, probably won't be the most sporty people in the rest of their lives, who not only take part but thrive. They're not going to be future Olympians necessarily, but the opportunity is there."

Even with such a small intake, one student is in fact training for the Olympics already, in shooting. And every pupil has trained with an Olympic rowing coach: Terry Hunter, head coach at Dorney Lake, whose son Mark won gold and silver medals at the Beijing and London Olympics respectively.

The range of sporting options is impressive: as well as rowing, students play rugby, football, cricket, hockey, rounders, basketball, badminton, Eton fives, real tennis and even polo. Staff also intend to introduce fencing next year.

Mr Bicknell says the average Holyport student does 10 hours a week of sport, including extracurricular activities. Here, they are called co-curricular activities to emphasise their importance, and are built into the timetable from 2 to 4pm as part of an extended schoolday. Most schools barely exceed two hours of sport a week.

The beautiful games

"The reason sport is so successful at schools like Eton is because of the character-building qualities from the 19th century, and that's what we really focus on: love of the game, playing fairly, and so on," Mr Bicknell says.

Following Eton's example, students umpire their own intra-school sports, forcing them to resolve their disputes civilly. They are also given responsibility for coaching each other, examining performances on iPad recordings and giving feedback that demands analytical and communication skills.

"I don't stand in front of the class and scream and shout, the way old-school PE teachers do," Mr Bicknell says. "We give them most of the responsibility of teaching and coaching, and they love it."

Sport has built a sense of community in the new school, he adds. Mr Bicknell is proud that Eton students, who buy their uniforms from the same shop, are jealous of the quality of Holyport's athletics gear.

"Sport galvanises the community," he says. "If you get that right, the kids feel part of something and value the school. I've been at schools where the kids turn up at 9 and leave at 3 and don't really feel part of that school. It speaks volumes when you see kids wearing their school kit all the time and taking pride in it."

Holyport is tentatively projecting academic success, with Mr McCarey saying its figures indicate that more than 90 per cent of pupils are on course for five A*-C grades at GCSE. But he is wary of overconfidence, citing the experience of the Wellington Academy. Praised as a model of private and state cooperation, the academy - sponsored by Wellington College - suffered a sudden slump in results, with the headteacher exiting soon after.

A private-school-style experience also doesn't come cheap. Construction of the school, which has dormitories above the classrooms, cost pound;16 million.

And although education is free for day pupils, as it is in any state school, parents pay a fee of pound;11,825 a year for boarding at Holyport. Perhaps for this reason, the majority of boarders have parents in the armed forces, who receive subsidies for up to 90 per cent of boarding costs.

Among the school's next tasks is to build up bursary funds, currently available for five students a year, to ensure that its boarding experience is open to all.

The Eton connection

Eton has five seats on Holyport's governing body.

The independent school provides access to its world-class sporting facilities.

It paid for consultancy from Professor Bill Lucas, director of the Centre for Real-World Learning.

Eton funded a pound;140,000 all-weather pitch.

Older Eton students mentor Holyport pupils during prep.

The Queen opened Holyport, perhaps influenced by the Eton link.

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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