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Schools that teach life's best lessons

The Telegraph

When shoes baron Lance Clark played tennis with his son’s former business studies teacher, he delighted in telling him what a terrible job he’d done.

For after leaving Millfield School in Somerset, Lance’s son Galahad decided to shun the family business, Clarks (C&J Clark), Britain’s best-known shoe retailer. Instead he studied abroad and started several businesses before founding his own shoe label Vivobarefoot. Incidentally, his father now loves his shoes.

After 12 years at boarding school, Clark left with an unshakeable self-belief and won a scholarship to study in the US, a move he credits for helping him escape the family business. “I came out of Millfield with massive self-confidence – probably too much. I felt that I could do anything.”

His fellow pupils came from all over the world and Clark grew up with a global perspective. He now works closely with Chinese suppliers and manufacturers. “At 15 I was hanging out with Africans, Russians, Chinese and Americans. The world felt a small place.”

Why do so many former pupils credit their independent schools with instilling such high self-confidence? Partly resources, say teachers and advisers: there’s one teacher for every nine pupils, compared with every 22 in the state sector. And one in five attending the UK’s top 10 universities comes from the independent sector, which accounts for just 7 per cent of schoolchildren in the UK and 16 per cent of those at sixth form.

But these schools also nurture options, from baking and dairy farming to ballroom dancing, as well as on the sports field. Last year, more private school pupils won Duke of Edinburgh Gold awards than did those from state schools.

And the independent sector can draw on a web of inspirational alumni, says Paul Kelly, head of school and university placement at independent consultants Gabbitas Education. “[Independent schools] have a concentration of successful parents or alumni with an affection for the school who will come in to talk, or facilitate work experience.”

When old boy Adam Balon returned to Latymer Upper School in London, he was stunned by the facilities. It was a nostalgic visit for the co-founder of Innocent Drinks, which sells more than two million smoothies a week. “[Latymer] gave me a sense of how lucky I was, a sense of freedom and openness.”

He remembers inspirational teaching and an environment that celebrated achievement. “It was OK to be good at stuff” – in his case maths – “without having to hide it.”

He believes his schooling led him to the University of Cambridge, where he met the friends with whom he went on to found Innocent after a short spell in consulting. “Getting to a decent uni was a function of a good education. It wasn’t an academic hothouse nor a homogenous mix of white middle class. There was kudos in doing the best you could. That level of encouragement is hugely important as a kid.”

Raoul Shah traces his success to lessons learnt in human nature at Highgate School in London. Fresh out of university and armed with a fax machine, he went on to found Exposure, now a leading UK communications agency. “The core of my business is being good with people. My years at Highgate helped me learn to communicate, debate and negotiate.”

Context was everything, he says. Highgate’s setting near Hampstead Heath and its in-house arts facilities were inspirational, with creativity high on the agenda. This is a sentiment echoed by fashion designer Alice Keswick, who spent her teenage years boarding at Marlborough College, where she was encouraged to “try a bit of everything”. She discovered her passion in the arts. “The school had an incredible art department – we had one-on-one teaching.”

She remembers the energy and encouragement of her house mistress. “She helped me find my path. That focused attention and energy gives you confidence.”

Now she couldn’t be further from her old school – en route to the premiere of a film featuring her designs in Saigon. Seven seasons after founding her Wondaland fashion label, she divides her time between Vietnam and London. She credits her early independence and ability to form strong bonds to the experience of boarding. “You’re out of your comfort zone, not glued to your parents. I didn’t think twice about setting up on my own.”

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