Trent: A school for our times

Trent College learnt many years ago that it needed to adapt to survive, and did so often.

By John Clare


TRENT COLLEGE, half way between Derby and Nottingham, is not, admits Jonathan Lee, the head, a “big name, designer-label” school. Situated in Long Eaton, a nondescript town, and virtually unknown beyond its catchment area, it comes two-thirds of the way down the A-level league table.

Yet it has 700 boys and girls aged 11-18 whose parents willingly pay fees of £7,000 a year for day pupils (70 per cent of the total) and £11,500 for boarders — lending support to Mr Lee’s belief that Trent is a school for our times. At the very least, it provides an instructive example of how vigorously the independent sector adapts to survive.

Trent was founded as a boys’ boarding school in 1868 by Francis Wright, an engineer who made his money building the Midland Railway. An evangelical Christian, he was determined to counter the influence of Nathaniel Woodard, an Anglo-Catholic cleric who aimed to blanket the country with High Church schools for the irreligious middle-classes.

Selecting the Victorian equivalent of a Green Belt site, Wright persuaded the Duke of Devonshire to lay the foundation stone, erected a long, redbrick building that looks rather like a railway station and had the satisfaction of opening it in the same year that Woodard started Denstone College, not far away in Uttoxeter.

By the Twenties, according to an Old Boy writing in the current issue of Trident, the school magazine, Trent was a pretty desperate place. Corporal punishment was commonplace — the head, a “dour Spartan”, wielded a “long, supple cane that not only left a weal across bare buttocks but also right round the side of the thigh” — and cold baths at seven on winter mornings were compulsory, the baths having been filled the night before (“two boys died of pneumonia in my time”). Curiously, a photograph of the 1922 “Common Room” — eight men on motor-cycles and a ninth in a car lined up in front of the school chapel — graces the current prospectus.

Change came exceedingly slowly. Only in the mid-Seventies, when the neighbouring local education authorities destroyed their grammar schools, did Trent wake up to the possibilities of a new market and begin to admit day boys in significant numbers. However, so strongly was the school’s reputation rooted in the prowess of its first XV, that it was not until 1992 that the decision was taken to go fully co-educational, thanks largely to Mr Lee. This year, 40 per cent of the 11-year-olds are girls.

Although boarding numbers continue to decline, the school has developed a strikingly successful compromise: a six-day week with lessons on Saturday mornings followed by an extensive programme of sporting activities. Allied to weekdays that for most pupils end only at 6.15 pm, such full-time schooling makes an attractive package for dual-income parents — as the majority are — and justifies fees far higher than those charged by most day schools.