Wellington College is home to a vast green lawn with a kilometer-long driveway. It is a historic building that can be seen emerging from the early-morning mist with its impressive red and white brick work. The edges of the lawn leading up to it are cordoned off to prevent the damp grass from being trampled upon before the end-of-term rugby match. Carved stone pediments are silhouetted against the sky as one approaches the building.
The school was founded in 1859 by Queen Victoria and the Earl of Derby in honor of the Duke of Wellington, a British military figure. Wellington College is a prestigious institution with a 400-acre campus that includes multiple facilities such as golfing greens, a shooting range, and a large stretch of private woodland. As a boarding school, a term at Wellington comes at a cost of £8,975, and last year there was a 100% A-level pass rate. The school’s motto, inscribed in Latin in the chapel hymn books, is Heroum Filii – Sons of Heroes.
Chris Uthman is a 15-year-old boy who hails from a council estate about four miles south of Manchester city center. He is the son of a truck driver and an Accident & Emergency nurse. His parents split up when he was six. Chris was a student at Chorlton High, a comprehensive school where fewer than half the pupils are white British, and a high proportion have English as their second language. The school received a "satisfactory" rating by Ofsted in 2008.
Chris was excluded from Chorlton High when he was 14. He had been playing truant for over a year and had a fallout with his new maths teacher. One day in the classroom, Chris became verbally aggressive, and it all came to a head. He is a broad-shouldered teenager, well over 6ft, and has an expression of glowering discontent on his face that he adopts whenever he feels threatened or uncomfortable, which can make him appear intimidating.
In hindsight, Chris admits that he went too far. He regrets his actions and says that he could still be in school had he not acted in such a way. Chris is at Wellington College as part of a partnership between the prestigious school and Cool UK, a youth project based in Burnley, Lancashire. Cool UK provides vocational training to young offenders and teenagers who have fallen by the wayside of mainstream schooling, some of whom, like Chris, have been excluded.
Many children drop out because the traditional school system does not meet their needs. Among Cool UK’s students, some end up in care, while others may have to deal with the pressure of looking after their alcoholic parent at home. They do not react well to teachers screaming at them to do things, and the school’s rules and regulations may not match their home environment. Chris believes that one needs to put in the effort to learn in school, or else one could end up on the dole for the rest of their lives.
Anthony Seldon, the headmaster at Wellington, sees the exchange scheme as an alternative to independent-school bursaries for disadvantaged children. According to Dr. Seldon, bursaries cherry-pick the most talented and capable students, leaving state schools devoid of their best and brightest. He believes that building bridges between people from different social, economic, racial, and religious backgrounds is crucial and sees this partnership as a way of breaking down those barriers.
Though it may seem like a straightforward idea, it has never been tested before. If this scheme is successful, it could serve as a model for other independent schools struggling to prove their charitable benefit.
Chris, on the other hand, is consumed with more immediate concerns: "I need a cigarette," he declares as he steps outside. He is wearing a loose-fitting pair of jeans and a gray sweatshirt with the hood laid flat over his ears. Despite the icy weather, he leaves the hood down rather than up. His face takes on a mask-like expression, as if shielding itself from the unknown. When asked if he’s anxious, he shakes his head. "No," he replies. "It’s just meeting new people."
Stephanie Booth, the development director of Cool UK, is responsible for youths who are on the fringes of mainstream society. She dislikes being referred to as a "do-gooder" and has no fondness for labels. Instead, her focus is on challenging the perceptions and biases we hold of others. The exchange program represents an opportunity to bring people together who might never cross paths. Booth believes that this initiative has tremendous potential to encourage well-to-do students, who will inevitably reach the top ranks of industry and influence, to recognize the rich complexity of other people’s lives.
Booth drove with Chris and two teenage girls, Donna Taylor and Grace Taylor (no connection), from Burnley, and arrived exhausted after six months of planning. On the morning of the event, Booth was up early, reassuring the jittery teens and coaxing them out of their shells. The offices of Cool UK provide vocational training in construction, hairdressing, and motor vehicle maintenance and are a refuge for students with little self-esteem and limited aspirations. Booth emphasizes that her goal is to remove these students from their background and encourage them to interact with peers that they might otherwise never meet.
Both Donna and Grace have come from broken homes. Donna has to live with her mother after being in care, while Grace lives with her grandmother. Their home lives are fragile and precarious, marked by uncertainties. Chelsea Blair, Stephanie’s stepdaughter, has given her support to the program and will participate in a Cool UK fundraising event.
Donna, who is petite and fair with blonde hair, is wearing an oversized grey sweater and appears quite unimpressed. She scans the room with a dismissive glance and squats down on the floor, hugging her knees close to her chest. Her Ugg boots squeak against the polished floor. Grace shakes her head, smiling tentatively, then takes her seat on the opposite side of the room. "They might seem moody and sulky," Steph whispers to me, "but their attitude of not caring is just a cover for their true emotions."
The astonishing thing is that the Wellington pupils assigned to look after Donna and Grace are completely non-judgmental and unaffected by the evident tension. Part of the reason for this is their confidence. One of the most striking differences between the two groups is the effortless self-assurance and maturity exuded by the Wellington students, compared to the apparent diffidence of the Cool UK trio. These are young people who have been encouraged to believe that they can achieve anything they set their minds to, and that support is available when they need it. Question them about the experience, and the Wellington pupils produce eloquent and well-constructed responses in a heartbeat.
"Meeting new people is always a good thing," states 16-year-old Georgina Singer, who is studying for her International Baccalaureate and hopes to attend Oxbridge one day. "It’s easy for a boarding school to become isolated from the world outside. However, at Wellington, we’re taught to be grateful rather than boastful, and I appreciate that."
Tom Rowe, 17, adds, "I believe that everyone benefits from this experience. There will always be stereotypes – for public school pupils as much as for these guys – but I don’t think that any of us meet the expectations or prejudices that other people have. Understanding how others live is crucial."
In dance class, Donna and Grace start to thaw. It begins with a conversation about food. I inquire about their breakfast, and Donna’s face breaks into an indestructible grin. "It was lovely," she states, beaming. "Grace had eggs, beans, and toast. I had a croissant, and everything was free! They even have vending machines that sell chocolates." Grace nods her head in agreement. "I’m starving. When is break-time? I need a brew." They join in with the dance routine for the last ten minutes of the class. Steph is grinning from ear to ear.
This is a significant breakthrough, particularly for Donna, who has never been at ease in a typical school environment and has a track record of disruptive conduct. "She is brilliant," states Steph. "The issue is that she hasn’t yet realized that wanting a better future necessitates changing her behavior to achieve it."
Grace, on the other hand, faces slightly different challenges. "I used to adore my school," she confesses while staring down at her desert boots that appear too big for her feet. Her fringes, which are slightly too lengthy, keep falling into her eyes. "I was fond of art, design, and English." Her state-run boarding institution near Warrington was shut down due to insufficient funding before Grace could acquire any qualifications. She ended up at Cool UK, studying for NVQs in English and math as a result.
In the classroom at Wellington, Grace feels most at ease. Before lunch, we sit in on a GCSE English lesson. A large interactive whiteboard displays a portion of the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Shimmering flapper dresses, dancing girls, and popping champagne corks fill the screen. It’s nearly impossible to imagine anything more removed from Grace’s everyday existence. The teacher subsequently instructs the students to compose a descriptive paragraph based on the film.
Grace smoothes out a blank A4 sheet of paper in front of her and carefully writes her name in green ink in the top left-hand corner. She decides that the dresses look "sparkly, like Christmas fairy lights." The instructor nods her head, pleased. "This is a completely different lesson from anything I’ve had before," she reveals. "It’s unusual because, at my previous school, everything was centered around tests and exams. We never did anything like this – fewer tests, more chatting, and filmmaking. We never had whiteboards; we had blackboards and chalk." Alexandra, the girl next to her, turns around and introduces herself. She attended a state school but won a golf scholarship to Wellington. The two of them begin to chat about Burnley, where Alexandra’s best friend resides.
"Will you come to Wellington?" Alexandra asks.
Chris has been given the task of penning a brief paragraph about the last instant he can recall feeling proud. He sits at his desk, with a pen in his hand, brow furrowed. After 15 minutes, he hands over his brief composition and grins, leaning back in his seat made of plastic. His essay is about the time when he was only 13, playing basketball for the school. At the edge of the game, he controlled the ball with everyone urging him to shoot. Chris took the shot and scored, a moment he could never forget. His story impresses David James, the director of International Baccalaureate, who thinks Chris has what it takes to pass his GCSEs in English and Maths. Dr James further dreams of having a long-lasting collaboration with Wellington, allowing Chris to receive some form of tuition.
Chris had never received a compliment from a teacher before, which has a remarkable impact on him. He changes from being a sullen adolescent to an engaged student. During our walk to the interschool rugby game on a Wellington field, Chris mentions how important it is to have a great teacher who can make learning interactive and fun.
Different from his old school, pupils at Wellington are polite and get their lessons done before chatting with each other. Chris, Grace, and Donna leave for the school tuck shop for crisps and chocolate bars. Their parents, along with others, come to cheer the team. As Chris and his mates walk away, looking lost in their group of sweatshirts and jeans, huddled with each other in a foreign surrounding, they seem young and alone.
Despite their differences, they realize that they have a lot of things in common. The Wellington students have already exchanged their mobile numbers and are eager to visit Burnley. The Wellington student, Frankie Paterson, says, "Everyone thought we were going to have different interests because our lifestyles were so far apart, but deep down, we were talking about the music and films that we all love. The girls loved chick flicks like Love Actually. We can discuss them even if we’re from different backgrounds."
Chris adds, "Everybody is friendly. They are good people." The power of opportunity and a teacher’s engagement improves students’ self-confidence. The moments that rest of us miss, such as whispered classroom confidences, private jokes, and the camaraderie despite differences, are what matters the most.