Debra Kidd finds moments of wonder in a book that otherwise feels like looking into another world altogether

I read this book as I watch those episodes of Location, Location, Location in which property hunters have a million-pound budget and I get to indulge my voyeuristic instincts to see how the other half live. Half in wonder, half in envy, with some concern on the side.

If you enjoy peeking into a world you’re unlikely to ever inhabit, this one’s for you. Imagine having £45 million to build a small sixth form that only takes students who have passed both a demanding examination and interview; where assemblies take place in Westminster Abbey, curriculum provision is enhanced by sending students off to study some subjects at the independent Westminster school and Boris Johnson (“that tousle-haired celebrity”) turns up to your launch – in the House of Lords…

Of course, the author makes clear that it is a unique circumstance and that not all ideas to be found in the book will be replicable. What he offers is a series of assembly speeches outlining the ethos of the school and all it stands for. These form an important part of communicating expectations to the students and you can imagine as you read how they might impact in a setting as grand as Westminster Abbey.

As I read them, I found myself bombarded with cultural references from the past – a catalogue of mostly dead, white men from whom the students (many from disadvantaged immigrant communities) may draw inspiration. References to women are few and to people of colour even fewer. His contemporary references are strangely juvenile too, which  Handscombe excuses away with a confession that his post-1900 references come from his young daughters.

Students are told from the start that they are there to change the world

Students are told from the start that they are there to change the world, to be more than the exam they will sit (though the importance of the exam is constantly stressed and presented to students as a “celebration of how clever you are”). They are charged with the responsibility to immerse themselves in all that London can offer them to enhance their learning.

Perhaps as a consequence of the very tight selection process, the school doesn’t seem to have a problem with discipline, so even the rules feel idiosyncratic. “Don’t drink in a pub within 200 metres of the school because I drink there” is one of them. I doubt many students can afford to drink in Westminster at all.

There are moments of bewilderment. One enthusiastic assembly tells these young people to look to Laurie Lee walking across Spain for a model of courage and curiosity. Handscombe asks them to consider how a young man might find the courage to leave his home. Then he gives them the answer: “He had a violin.” I wonder how that plays with students – who either have direct experience, or have heard their parents’ stories of leaving home – to hear from someone who thinks the world is that simple.

Another clanger appears in a rare reference to a woman of colour. One assembly presents Shami Chakrabarti in the same list of flawed heroes as Ramses II, Cecil Rhodes and Heart of Darkness character, Charlie Marlow. At this point, I began to wonder if the aim of the school really is to educate young people to change the word or really more about keeping it exactly the same, albeit with slightly better representation at the top.

And yet, there are moments of wonder in this book too. In spite of all my concerns, the students are creating spaces for themselves to explore their identities, with groups to explore race, intersectional feminism and other issues. It is clear that they take the mantra “Learning is Amazing” to heart.

They are constantly praised. Teachers go out of their way to offer broader experiences. They are encouraged to think for themselves. And the beautiful and quite touching result is that it becomes clear the teachers have as much to learn from these young people as the other way around.

If they can then go on to really change the world, it will have been a journey well worth taking, – with or without a violin.