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Home > News and views > ‘The overwhelming experience of our SSE students has been the warmth of welcome by their American contemporaries’

‘The overwhelming experience of our SSE students has been the warmth of welcome by their American contemporaries’

Adrian Underwood, retiring Chair of the SSE selection panel, reflects on his 45 years’ involvement with the scheme

I first encountered the ESU in 1976, when, in my second year of headship, I escorted one of my pupils to Dartmouth House for her interview for a place on the Secondary School Exchange. She did not need an escort, but I was intrigued by the scheme. I met the then Director of Education, David Hicks (later Director-General) who recruited me as a member of the SSE interview panel. In those days it was a panel of up to eight heads of independent schools – quite a daunting ordeal for the applicants. Over the years, the panel has become smaller, due to the demands on heads, but the rigour of selection has not been diminished. I became chairman of the panel in the 1990s. One significant change has been the greater number of applicants from state educated pupils. This has been welcomed by the ESU, although, of course, state schools, by law, cannot offer places to scholars from the USA. It is to the credit of the independent sector that it has continued to offer boarding places to USA scholars, even though their own students may not gain placements in the USA.

The value of the programme is encapsulated in the number of scholars returning to the UK and telling me, and the ESU team, that the experience has changed their lives. It broadens horizons, develops maturity before university and, above all, challenges a scholar to think about their aims in life, so much so that a number change their university course in the light of their experiences in the USA.

I have had the privilege over the years to visit our scholars in their schools in the USA and their overwhelming experience has been the warmth of welcome by their American contemporaries. This is exemplified by the fact that one of our scholars some years ago was selected to row in the school’s first boat in the east coast rowing regatta on the Hudson river, replacing an American boy in the eight. That was a true welcome.

Another memorable moment was when interviewing at Dartmouth House, when the then chairman, an eminent headmaster, asked, rather naughtily, what the applicant thought about his new headmaster. The young man replied, ‘An absolute disaster, sir. He has removed a good number of the privileges of the Upper Sixth (Year 13) and we are not happy’. There was a communal intake of breath by the panel. ‘But he will be all right, sir,’ the young man continued. ‘We leave in the summer. The lower sixth like him, the new third year will not know the difference. By September he will have most of the school on his side.’ After the young man left the room, it was unanimously agreed that he deserved a scholarship and one at a top USA school!

I have also been fortunate to forge a strong relationship with Skip Flanagan, my opposite number in the States, whom I first met in the UK in the 1990s. Skip has had an eminent educational career in the USA and is a passionate supporter of the SSE scheme. Skip ensures the scheme will continue to flourish on his side of the pond.

Skip and I both fervently wish for the continuation of the Secondary School Exchange. It has been hit hard by the Coronavirus restrictions. We believe it will rise again. It is certainly not for all school leavers, especially those who cannot wait to shake off the shackles (as they see them) of school. But, for those fortunate enough to have the experience of a year in senior school education in the USA, it is life-changing.

After my 45 years’ supporting the scheme, I will most miss the engagement, at interview and on their return from the States, with young people of the United Kingdom who exemplify the best qualities of rising to a challenge and making the best of every opportunity, whilst never losing their sense of humility and gratitude for the experiences they have enjoyed.

Adrian Underwood’s career has been in education for 50 years. He was educated at Dulwich College and universities in the UK and Canada. For over twenty years he was headmaster of a boarding and day school and, in 1998 was appointed National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA). He was appointed OBE in 2006 for services to education. For ten years during and after his national role, he was a lead inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate in England, the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau and led inspection teams in the Middle East and the Far East. He has been a member of the Wymondham College Governing Body since 2007. 

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