Sally Jones charts the course and effect of extra-curricular activities
The group of 11 and 12-year-olds carefully traced the pandemic’s effect on the fluctuating stock market prices over the months up to May 2020. When they discovered their investments – hypothetical at this stage – had produced a healthy profit, outperforming the FTSE 100 index by over five per cent, there was great celebration. Now they are punting with real money, an initial stake of £1,000 raised from a school fete, with all profits from their investments channelled into a bursary fund to enable more children from non-privileged backgrounds to attend their school.
The youngsters, from Embley, a day and boarding school in Hampshire, are the UK’s first group of schoolchildren to trade on the London Stock Exchange. According to headmaster Cliff Canning, their club, Embley Asset Management, which meets weekly and is advised by local stockbrokers and other finance experts, has helped to build the children’s knowledge not only of macroeconomics, financial markets, problem-solving but also ethical investing and responsible stewardship – all vital life-skills.
Welcome to the new-style clubs of independent schools – many of which are even leading children on into successful careers. For boarding schools in particular, the time and teaching expertise available give pupils a head start when putting in the hours required to excel at an extra-curricular discipline.
Caterham School in Surrey has produced several renowned entrepreneurs via their societies. For Josh Higginson, a sixth form Business Studies special project club proved the launch-pad for his highly successful artisan food sourcing brand, Unearthed Foods, which now supplies major stores including Waitrose. Higginson, 30, recently launched an American offshoot.
When his near-contemporary Will Moy set up the annual current affairs magazine Preview with three friends in 2010, the boys quickly grasped the vital need for accuracy and the dangers of ‘fake news’ in public life. Soon after leaving school, they launched the fact-checking service FullFact.org which thrived during Brexit and Covid, a vital resource to companies including Channel 4 and Facebook.
At Eton too, professionalism and focus are key to extra-curricular successes. Its outstanding student-led online publication Etonomics allows boys to choose, research, write and edit their own pieces. Read worldwide by thousands of economics enthusiasts, not just proud parents, its standards of writing and research often equal those of The Economist itself.
With increasing emphasis on eco-awareness, schools like Eton and St Paul’s Girls’ (SPGS) spearhead ‘green’ strategies, inspiring numerous students to consider careers in this area.
SPGS’s influential Environmental Action Committee runs many pupil-led projects. Dedicated young activists Abigail, Nephele and Amelia described its initiatives in reducing meat consumption, running Restore, a fashionable thrift shop, launching a unique Business and Sustainability course and planting hedgerows to increase biodiversity.
‘I love recycling stuff,’ said talented Year 9 artist Chloe, who has designed environmentally-themed Zoom backgrounds worthy of a professional advertising agency. ‘I sew a lot and enjoy turning old clothes into something new and unique. I’m interested in science so becoming an environmental scientist would enable me to combine two of my interests.’
James Dunne, Merritt Factor and Cosmo Le Breton, committed members of Eton’s rapidly expanding Environmental Society, typify the new breed of campaigners. Dunne hopes to specialise in Environmental Law to continue his eco-activism at a high level. Le Breton, who co-founded the Berkshire Schools Eco-Network, is planning a research trip to Malaysia, taking part in a malaria project. ‘It’s a tremendous opportunity,’ he said. ‘Long term I’d love to study the relationship between conservation and epidemiology.’
Eton also boasts an impressively professional Medical Society, as does King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham, where around a fifth of the pupils go on to study Medicine. Medsoc member Rhea Takhar, 18, recently filled a crucial gap in the market, co-writing a new book of worked solutions to past papers from the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT.) The months of painstaking research have helped her to win a place for Medicine at Oxford University.
Meanwhile, a ground-breaking research paper on the physical and mental impact of lockdown on teenagers by Edwardians Noemi Jester and Premjeet Kang, both 18, has been accepted by an official journal of the Royal Society of Public Health.
Millfield, renowned as a sporting powerhouse, is offering a more cerebral option: eSports. Students compete against other schools in age-appropriate team games like Overwatch and Rocket League (three-a-side ‘football with cars’). Some like highly talented Rupert Mayer, 13, are even tipped for a professional career.
‘The gaming industry is bigger than film, TV and music combined and eSports is an important part of that,’ says Millfield’s Head of Computer Science and ICT, Matthew Shields, which no doubt comes as welcome reassurance for parents terrified their teen will spend their life in a twilight world of shoot-em-ups and zombie extravaganzas.
‘School eSports allow teachers to ensure that students compete safely and balance this with their academic studies and other commitments. For some it will lead to a career in the games industry and provide transferable skills for future jobs.’ Typically, Millfield’s star gamers also undergo regular gym training, recognising the importance of physical fitness for mental stamina.
While gaming has a cult following, physical prowess and resilience remain major selling points at many top schools.
Tim Green, 30, remembers crossing the Bay of Biscay in the dark aged 15. ‘I was on our school’s tall ship Jolie Brise,’ says the Flight Lieutenant, a former pupil of Dauntsey’s School, Wiltshire, ‘and a storm was coming in and it was my first time on night watch. It was daunting but incredible to face something scary and come through it.’
That whetted his appetite for adventure and he took on the gruelling 125-mile Devizes to Westminster canoe challenge and a freezing expedition in the Brecon Beacons for the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award. ‘You learn to push yourself through the pain barrier and carry on when you want to give up. Enjoying the outdoors and its challenges made me realise I wanted an adventurous job,’ he adds. He became an RAF helicopter pilot, operating in high-risk environments like Afghanistan and training Special Forces in hostage recovery.
Dauntsey’s outdoor pursuits also helped forge the future career of his trail-blazing contemporary Rosie Wild, 29. She became the first woman to win the coveted maroon beret of the Parachute Regiment, passing their brutal Selection Test after a timed 20-mile endurance march and an aerial assault course, something few male applicants complete.
At Gordonstoun, pursuits like professional-standard firefighting and sail training often prove an education in themselves. Sam Reid, from Scunthorpe, who won a prestigious full fees all-rounder scholarship at age 15, so relished voyages aboard the school’s 80 foot-long Bermudan ketch Ocean Spirit of Moray that he also embraced an exciting career lifestyle. After training youngsters to sail at Gordonstoun’s summer schools, he began delivering luxury yachts across Europe, before completing a round-the-world voyage, crewing for a couple on their sailing boat.
Generations of Gordonstounians have likewise benefited from the specific skills and ‘can-do’ spirit instilled there. The Princess Royal’s children, Zara and Peter Phillips, have both enjoyed international success, in eventing and rugby respectively, thanks partly to the resolve they learned through school clubs.
Like Zara, numerous pupils from ‘horsey’ prep schools such as Hanford, Abberley Hall, Sandroyd and Stonar go on to ride at a high level. Gifted equestrienne Holly Needham relished her lessons on the Abberley ponies before winning an all-rounder sports scholarship to Malvern College, representing GB successfully at European level.
Performing arts, another strength of the independent sector, involves teamwork of a more public kind. From Carey Mulligan (Woldingham) and Emma Watson (The Dragon) to Sam West (Alleyn’s) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow), thespian skills developed in school drama clubs often lead on to theatrical careers. Charismatic West End lead, Dean Chisnall, Jean Valjean in Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables, recently became Charterhouse’s first-ever Actor-in-Residence. His tips on audition technique and the demands of the professional stage have boosted the prospects of numerous bright young Carthusian talents.
Meanwhile, Bruton School for Girls in Somerset specialises in more domestic performance. Its popular lunchtime cookery club Quick Cooks has inspired hundreds of Sixth Formers to complete the highly-rated Leiths‘ Introductory Certificate in Food and Wine. Several now enjoy high-level careers in catering including a Group Innovation Specialist at Nestle and a Leith’s trained chef.
‘Education can be transformative, igniting passions and interests that last a lifetime,’ said Caterham School headmaster Ceri Jones. ‘Some happens in classrooms, some in those unstructured and self-directed times outside lessons. You never know which club, activity, trip or lesson will spark something that becomes a lifelong focus. For so many pupils, ideas, inspired by and incubated at school, ultimately lead them to flourish and excel in their careers.’
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