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Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

From the Times newspaper

Polish students at one of England’s most famous schools are rising to the top of the class

It’s one of the most expensive private schools in Britain: send your daughter here to board for seven years and with extras such as uniform and games’ kit, you won’t see much change from £200,000.

For decades Cheltenham Ladies’ college – the word “chav” for the working classes is supposedly derived from the college’s slang for “Cheltenham average” – has turned out well-bred, well-educated young ladies. A roll call includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Mary Archer, Bridget Riley, Katharine Hamnett, Lisa Jardine, Gareth Peirce and Nicola Horlick.

But in recent years some of the school’s starriest performers have been a handful of Polish teenagers who have joined the sixth form on free scholarships worth about £55,000 apiece, covering two years of sixth form boarding fees.

Selected in their home country some arrived with stumbling English, little money and only a Polish state education under their belts. But their talent and hard work has left them outstripping many pupils who have had the benefit of the college’s pricey education since the age of 11. Studying for up to six A-levels, several have been snapped up by Oxbridge and Ivy League universities.

Education experts say that their achievements are a warning to British teenagers that the work ethic of clever Polish children, coupled with rigorous science and maths teaching at an early age, could see newcomers beating “complacent” British teenagers to the best university places and jobs.

“They have a hunger for success. and know from their background just how important a good education is for fulfilling yourself and having the best opportunities,” says Alan Smithers, director of Buckingham University’s Centre for Education Research.

“In this country we have become perhaps too complacent. We have enjoyed an established place in the world for a long time and do not feel as sharply as we should the need to achieve the best we can.”

Looking out over the college’s gardens from her office Vicky Tuck, the principal of the college, describes the backgrounds of some of her Polish high-flyers. “They are usually from modest homes. Homes where learning is greatly valued . . . and they do work very, very hard,” she says.

“We had one who needed money to buy socks – we do give them [£20 a week] pocket money,” says Tuck. But lack of ready cash didn’t deter her from studying: “She would get up in the very early morning to download lectures online from Har-vard and MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology].”

Karolina Watras, the first Polish scholarship girl, won a place at Cambridge University to read history of art, where she got a first class degree.

Then there was Anna Labno, with six A grades at A-level, who was fought over by Cambridge and MIT. Anna turned Cambridge down for MIT, partly because the American university’s scholarship covered more of her costs.

Malgorzata Cholast also won a place at Cambridge, where she is still a student. This year the college – which has 865 pupils, most boarders – has two Polish scholarship girls: Agnieszka Bulatowicz, 17, and Gabriela Hajduk, 18.

Gabriela, who is taking six A-levels and studies about 10 hours a day, comes from a village in the south of Poland where her father is a car mechanic. Her mother not only looks after four children at home but also Gabriela’s extraordinary collection of 65 abandoned parrots.

She started the collection four years ago and says that the parrots have inspired her to study either zoology or animal behaviour at university (she is considering applying to Cambridge).

Gabriela, who admits that her English “did not exist” when she arrived, says that she is still occasionally thrown by the slang used by the Cheltenham girls: “prep” instead of “home-work”, for instance. But when it comes to doing prep Gabriela acknowledges that, yes, she probably works harder then many of her classmates, spending about four hours a night poring over her books.

Surprisingly, even though she is doing twice as many A-levels as most British children, she finds the syllabus easier than in Poland.

Not only do Polish children have to study 14 subjects for their sixth-form diploma but there are more surprise tests, too. However, classes at the college are much smaller: “There are only seven people in my geography class. There were 36 in Poland.”

Clad in school uniform of olive-green jumper and discreetly striped navy trousers Agnieszka – whose father, a doctor, cried when she won the scholarship – says that she too is studying six A-levels.

A star linguist, she wants to learn Chinese, possibly at Cambridge, before going into business. “Chinese has the reputation of being a very hard language – I want to rise to the challenge,” she says.

What do she and Gabriela make of the boarding school that is their new home? “It’s like a castle,” says Gabriela. Agnieszka reveals that before she arrived at the college, which is built on the site of the town’s former spa, her only encounter with English boarding schools came from the pages of Harry Potter.

“In Poland, I thought a prefect was something JK Rowling invented,” says Agnieszka. “It was shocking to find they exist. I had never heard of net-ball before either.

“Before I came here, I heard loads of things. The girls are so posh, from rich, good families. The truth is they are so nice and down-to-earth.”

There is just one thing about the college that Agnieszka would change: the taps. “You have two taps in bath-rooms in England: one is very hot and one is very cold,” she says. In Poland, by contrast, everyone has mixer taps. When her parents visited before Christmas her father observed, “They really do need Polish plumbers.”

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

"Selected in their home country some arrived with stumbling English, little money and only a Polish state education under their belts."

... only a Polish state education under their belts ...

Poland's school education system is going downhill, but it is far ahead of Britain's.

I taught for several years in 2 UK schools (one state, one private) and was appalled at the moronic dictates from the edyukashun establishment. Thatcher started the state school meltdown, Major and Blair continued it and Brown has started attacking private schools now.

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

V ... when did your children start physics?

our local country primary now has a G1 class too ... biology is covered but i see no sign of chemistry or physics. is this usual? or maybe simply a side-effect of the 'country' nature of the school (i suspect it's targetting kids who intend to leave at the earliest possible moment)

i will get seriously discontented if physics isn't available from G1 ...


Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

I'd imagine this is down to the fact that there is huge competition for these places in Poland and therefore only the smartest succeed, whereas the other students have less stringent entrance exams and can pay the astronomical fees. Couple this with the Poles being hugely motivated having been given a great opportunity and this is the result.

The UK doesn't have a "hungry" culture. By hunger I mean the motivation and drive to succeed and better oneself. Someone I once knew used to put this down to the "immigrant mentality" where immigrants see opportunities because they lacked them in their home countries, whereas us native borns a blind to what is possible around us.

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

"Someone I once knew used to put this down to the "immigrant mentality" where immigrants see opportunities because they lacked them in their home countries, whereas us native borns a blind to what is possible around us. "

I think it depends it depends on where the immigrant comes from.

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

I'd say it depends more on how smart they are.

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

Claire - my son does physics in G1.
Hates it

England has loads of quite academically ambitious young children - in private schools.


Without going into details, I am vaguely connected to all of these schools and know they give generous scholarships and allow entry to the school on various grounds. It's not all about money, you know.
One boy I particularly remember teaching, was a decent but not oustanding sportsman, musician and academic but received an 80% scholarship (I think)from Epsom College on account of his father - the family breadwinner - dying suddenly of a heart attack.

Prep schools (private primary schools) in Surrey generally demand that children are good with at least one musical instrument, have at least one committed pastime, take part in a wide range of sporting activities and get up to GCSE level by the age of 13. They also demand that they learn good eating manners and walk properly, not trudge. You can tell social class in Tonbridge, for instance, by the ability to walk!

Re: Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Polish pupils

physics in G1? good ... and about time too

they should be starting it at 11, I say ...

(ok, ok, it was my favourite subject after maths ... /the shame/ )