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Olympic stars bring pride and worldwide fame to their school

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 14, 2012

  • Plymouth College headmaster Dr Simon Wormleighton is incredibly proud of his school – and all its pupils, whether they are Olympic stars or not Picture: Penny Cross

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It was back to school but not quite back to earth this week for Dr Simon Wormleighton.

The Plymouth College headmaster, his staff and pupils are still basking in the unreal glory of being the most talked-about school in the UK, maybe the most high-profile in the world.

The success of pupils Tom Daley and Ruta Meilutyte at the London Olympics turned the media spotlight on the private school.

Lithuanian swimmer Ruta's gold medal and GB diver Tom's bronze prompted an international press, radio and television scramble to report on the stunning achievements of the two and to tell the world about their school.

The count is over 700 media articles, and rising, while normal website traffic increased 40-fold. "If Plymouth College were a country we would have finished 49th in the medal table," says Dr Wormleighton with a grin so wide that it is clear he still does not quite believe what has happened. "We beat three-quarters of the world."

Plymouth College (population 530) topped, among many others, India (population 1,200 million). "It has given pupils a huge sense of pride and a very strong sense that anything is possible if you have the self-belief, the motivation and the commitment, and work hard. They sit next to Tom and Ruta in class and they see that they are just like them.

"Pupils see that anybody can achieve remarkable things."

To continue the sense of unreality, Dr Wormleighton turned down a request from BBC national news to film the return of the two medal winners to school this week.

The reason? Two other Plymouth College Olympians, swimmers Jamila Lunkuse of Uganda and Jade Howard of Zambia, were not available for filming. "It just didn't seem right not to have all four Olympians together."

Unreal? Yes, because the college is a private school: a business that depends on a positive profile to ensure a steady flow of fee-paying pupils.

The Olympics caused a surge in applications – 86 inquiries were made in late August, after the Olympics coverage – but to turn down free, good publicity takes great strength of character and points to a key factor at the heart of Plymouth College's success story.

While competition, academic and well as sporting, is encouraged through the "house" system – all pupils are divided into four sets – the vertical mix of ages in each group promotes togetherness and a sense of community, win or lose. And so singling out only the medal winners "just didn't seem right".

But if the situation seems unreal, then Dr Wormleighton appears as real-world as they come. He did go to a private school, but not one much talked about outside the county in which it resides: Rendcomb, Gloucestershire. And he certainly wasn't a high-achiever. "I did not work hard and battled against authority," he says. "I scraped five passes at O-level and was allowed into the sixth form only if I did two A-levels rather than the usual three or four.

"I still wasted my time and did not get a single A-level. It was probably entirely my fault but I was in a year group of 27 of whom nine got scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge; I felt that I didn't matter."

He spent three years doing manual work – in a cardboard factory and later as a gardener – until he decided he wanted to make something of his life. He found a university, Southampton, that would take him as a mature student, without those precious A-levels. Not that he was transformed into a hard worker overnight. As part of his teaching degree, specialist subject English, he had to do a dissertation and chose the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, "because I had some notes on him from when I was at school and I thought it would be easy".

His tutor thought otherwise, pushed the young undergraduate and encouraged him to read more widely.

"I got fired up and completed my dissertation a year early." He was up and running. He took the same subject as an MA (masters) which turned into a PhD (doctorate), both completed at Exeter University.

Devon has a family connection: his grandparents lived in Honiton. Dr Wormleighton himself grew up in the Cotswolds, where his late father, John, was a commercial artist who went on to be managing director of an advertising agency. He is the oldest of four. Brother Tim is an architect in North Devon, Charlotte is an industrial pharmacist in Cheshire and Emma and her husband run a medical company in Texas.

His mother, Jackie, lives in North Devon. After his doctorate, he had a gap year spent coaching in that hotbed of cricket... Switzerland. A school in St Moritz happened to have English sports on its PE curriculum. As a fast bowler – he has the advantage of height, at 6ft 4in – he played county standard at schools level and then minor counties equivalent while working at Langley, a private school in Norfolk. He does not play now, at 55.

"I didn't want to go into twilight. I wanted to be the best. Either open the bowling – or nothing at all." That's said with a big smile but the eyes show there is some competitive steel in his bones.

After three years in Norfolk he joined the staff of one of the UK's best-known private schools, Cheltenham College. His 12 years there showed him how hard work and determination could be turned into success, he says. The same could be said of himself: there he was teaching A-level English to a group entirely made up of Oxbridge candidates and he got all 12 through to their chosen universities – without, of course, an A-level to his name.

Next, Dr Wormleighton was headmaster of Grenville College in North Devon before taking the top job at Plymouth College in 2006. Among the 530 pupils at the school are his daughters, Saskia, 17, and Héloise, 14. His wife, Sandy, manages the box office at the Theatre Royal. They met while at Southampton University. She has spent her working life in arts marketing.

Never mind the eyes of the world, people in Devon rarely dwelled on the school back in 2006. The school had relied on the (Government funded) assisted places scheme for many years, but that came to an abrupt end. "This is not one of the most affluent places in the UK. We had to look elsewhere."

The gaze turned towards boosting income through boarding places and upping the profile through sporting prowess. The elite swimming programme with Plymouth club Leander was developed with astonishing success. Ruta's gold is the tip of a broad-based pyramid of achievement: pupil Cassandra Patten won a bronze at the 2008 Olympics and school swimmers have broken over 100 British and English records.

There are now elite academies covering modern pentathlon, fencing and rugby. The number of boarders has grown from 17% to 29% in the last three years and the aim is to grow that number further thanks to rising demand.

School fees for boarding pupils are £24,125 to £25,485 a year – an important income stream. More and more pupils come from abroad; China and Hong Kong are prominent sources. The Government is tightening rules on visas issued to students – against a background of stories of abuses of the system – but by contrast, Dr Wormleighton hopes the Government will make it easier for non-EU students to get visas to take up places at UK schools and colleges.

"We work closely with the UK Borders Agency but it can still take four or five weeks for a visa to come through, so some students will not be able to join the school until the middle of October," he says. "I would like to see the Government make it easier. Millions and millions of pounds are being brought into the UK by overseas students at private schools."

The students also enrich life at Plymouth College and raise the profile of the city around the world, he said.

As well as boosting the school's profile, sport can also lead to academic achievement. Although bursaries and scholarships can cut tuition fees in half – the full cost is £12,150-£13,350 per year – for elite athletes, the sporty pupils must deliver in the classroom, too.

"There is no compromise on the academic side," he says. "We expect them to do the same number of subjects and achieve the high grades, and they do. The swimmers especially do so. They are so used to achieving targets (in the pool) that they thrive on it."

Diver Tom's A and A-star grades at GCSE and A-level are evidence, he says, that pupils can be high-achievers in sport and in class.

The school has an entrance exam but is not selective as such – a wide range of academic ability is catered for; only those "off the scale" would not get in.

That only points further to the achievement of the school as a whole. "Our results compare favourably with the (selective) grammar schools," he says.

But after three decades of rising grades nationally, this headmaster believes the UK schools exam system of GCSEs and A-levels is "broken".

"Pupils can't be getting brighter every year. What is happening is that schools have become more adept at showing pupils how to pass exams.

"Pupils go through a module preparing for an exam, then go on to the next module and prepare for that exam. The focus is very narrowly on what is needed to pass each exam."

Consequently pupils are not helped to become creative, intelligent thinkers. "It is a factory mentality."

He says that focusing on a single exam at the end of a course would allow a wider curriculum to be taught.

But he does not want to see a return to O-levels. "We should be going forward, not going back 30 years."

Plymouth College offers the broader International Baccalaureate (IB) in the sixth form alongside A-levels.

One big advantage of the IB is that the focus is on learning, not exams. Pupils can go "off piste" and deviate from the syllabus. "The IB is totally international, rather than a national cultural viewpoint. That is increasingly important in a global world," he says.

All well and good for the wealthy few who can afford Plymouth College's fees. If he truly feels, as he said earlier, that "anybody can achieve remarkable things" is it morally right that the best sporting and academic education is only available to children whose parents have the money? And that those children go on to enjoy the rewards of that education in jobs that will afford them the luxury, when they are parents, of doing the same for their own offspring?

How does he feel being a part of a system which enjoys charitable status while preserving privilege? Dr Wormleighton concedes that private education is perceived by some as being associated with arrogance, but he insists Plymouth College pupils leave with a strong sense of a duty to put "back in" to society. "It is about reciprocity," he says.

He adds that the college produces a strong public benefit through opening up facilities to local groups, providing sports coaching and centres of excellence, through links with local primaries and organising open events, and bursary awards.

And as for the dominance of privately educated pupils in Team GB at the London Olympics, that is not only about facilities attracting young elite athletes – while the college has a 25-metre pool, pupils also use the public 50-metre one at the Plymouth Life Centre. The standard of coaching, value placed on sport and the ethos of competition at Plymouth College are more important and a key element is flexibility. "We have after-hours academic help, one-to-one catch-up and video conferencing for athletes who go away to competitions. Tom Daley is dong a three-year sixth form. Other schools just don't get it (what an athlete needs)."

And he repeats a familiar line put out by those supporting private schools: that such establishments help take some of the pressure off the state system.

How about the counter argument: that if private schools did not exist the state sector would be transformed overnight, because all those wealthy and influential parents would fight tooth and nail to secure the necessary public funding?

But Dr Wormleighton says that to match the private sector there would have to be a massive increase in resources. "We have 11 children in a class. For state schools to come down from 30 in a class would require a 60% increase in the number of teachers.

"In an ideal world, there would be no need for private education," he says. "The state should provide an education system that is fit for purpose.

"If it did, there would be no reason for parents to pay for their children to go to a private school."

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