A student who was awarded a scholarship to prestigious Eton College returned to his former school to help inspire other young people.
Gagan Singh, 18, who was head student at Newsome Academy, returned to his old school to chat to teachers and pupils about his amazing journey from Waterloo to Windsor.
Gagan left his family home in Waterloo in September 2022 when he secured funding from the Orwell Award, a scheme which provides free places at Eton College to talented young people whose life chances have been limited.
Gagan left mum and dad Kulwinder and Gurjaipal and his three older sisters to take up a place in the Sixth Form at Eton in Windsor, Berkshire.
Eton is a fee-paying boarding school that has educated 20 prime ministers including Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Harold Macmillan, members of the Royal family including Prince William and Prince Harry and actors such as Damian Lewis, Eddie Redmayne and Hugh Laurie.
Other luminaries include author George Orwell, after whom the Orwell Award is named; James Bond creator Ian Fleming and survival expert and chief Scout Bear Grylls.
Gagan said: “Eton College is an amazing place and the experience has helped me spread my wings. I hope I can show others what is possible.”
Gagan was a high-achieving student at Newsome who took his exams early and the school’s head teacher Dean Watkin found out about the Orwell Award and he and other staff helped Gagan complete an application.
Gagan had overcome many hardships in his childhood. His father was diagnosed with colon cancer and his mother had a brain tumour resulting in a loss of vision.
Gagan’s application was described as one of the most compelling ever received by Eton College and he was accepted as one of the 12 Orwell Award students in his year group.
It meant leaving home a couple of years earlier than if he’d studied A-levels locally and then gone to university and Gagan admitted to having a moment of self-doubt.
“My teacher sent me the details of the award just six days before the deadline,” said Gagan. “He said it would be great to apply for but there was no guarantee.
“I thought: ‘Why not? What’s the worst that could happen? I would go to Greenhead College instead.’ So I applied just on the deadline and was shortlisted and had interviews and was accepted.
“But then I got a bit scared. I had mixed feelings. I was moving out and going somewhere that was four hours away from home.”
Gagan, however, talked it through with his parents and Mr Watkin and other staff and decided to go for it.
“Everyone at Newsome Academy was rooting for me and I didn’t want to let anyone down,” said Gagan. “Mr Watkin was amazing and everyone helped prepare me.
“It’s been a wonderful experience and I’ve no regrets. I have got to experience something that I never thought I’d get to experience.”
Gagan went through some induction weeks to ease the transition to becoming a boarder and living away from home for the first time.
“I wasn’t as homesick as I thought I would have been,” said Gagan. “I was making new friends and it was all strange but good! I have made lifelong friendships.”
Gagan is studying maths, further maths, chemistry and physics but Eton is about so much more than just academic subjects.
There’s sport, music and after school societies and Gagan has learned to play the sitar, an Indian stringed instrument, from scratch and also tried horse-riding for the first time.
There’s also the opportunity for beagling – running and hunting with dogs – but Gagan said: “I’ve not tried that and I don’t think I ever will. It’s not my cup of tea!”
Societies cater for all manner of interests and Gagan is secretary of the Scientific Society and also the South Asian Society. Gagan’s role is to invite speakers and arrange dinners and events.
Another big change to get used to was the uniform. It’s not jumpers and blazers at Eton, it’s a black tailcoat or morning coat worn over a black waistcoat and pinstriped trousers. There’s also a distinctive white neck tie.
“I love the tails,” said Gagan. “Though I struggled a bit at first to tie the tie!”
Gagan has thrown himself into Eton life and had a modest part in a play, This House, about the workings of British politics. His English teacher from Newsome, Mrs Krystyna Stokes, went down to watch and that shows how closely all the staff at Newsome follow Gagan’s progress.
As a boarder he comes back to Huddersfield every three weeks or so and he’s just been back for two weeks of half-term.
Asked what he’s made of the first of his two years at Eton, he said: “Busy! You do so many things you don’t realise how time flies.
“In some ways coming back to Newsome and seeing everyone again it feels like I’ve only taken a week off to go to Eton – but then it’s also a bit nostalgic, like stepping back into the past.
“I’ve been talking to other students, which is great, and while they can’t all go to Eton, what they can do is step outside their comfort zone and that’s what I’d encourage everyone to do.”
As for his own future, Gagan isn’t quite sure yet. He wants to study maths and philosophy at a university down South but he’s not sure which one.
“I love the North but I want to experience something outside of home so I want to stay in the South,” he said. “I might be a teacher but I will see where life takes me.”
Gagan and head teacher Dean Watkin pictured at the time he secured the Eton scholarship
Head teacher Mr Watkin has previously described Gagan as a “true superstar” and he said the whole school was “immensely proud” of him. Other students look up to him as a role model.
“Gagan was always very gifted but he lacked confidence,” said Mr Watkin. “He was doing GCSEs in year 8 and A-levels in year 10 and we supported him through the whole process.
“When we helped him apply for the scholarship they said it was one of the best applications they had ever seen. He had a wobble, of course, but we spoke to his family and he went and he has loved it ever since.
“The other kids look up to him and they can aspire to follow him. Not everyone can go to Eton College but it shows that young people from in and around Huddersfield can have opportunities they never thought were possible.”
Deputy head teacher Joel Hinchliffe said Eton had “been the making” of Gagan but it wasn’t all about academic achievement and other young people could take inspiration from Gagan’s journey.
“It’s about you following your passions,” said Mr Hinchliffe. “Whatever your passion, find it and follow it.”
Tom Arbuthnott, deputy head (partnerships) at Eton College, said: “It’s been such a thrill for us to partner with Newsome Academy in educating such a talented young man as Gagan.
“Not only has he become an Oppidan Scholar, our prime academic award for new entrants to the school, but he has thrown himself into all aspects of school life, enriching our school community and building lifelong friendships with other boys.”
Eton also has terminology all its own. Here’s some examples.
Beak – an Eton master (teacher)
Burning Brush – an ornate lamppost in the centre of the college used as a meeting point
Capping – acknowledging a master by raising an imaginary top hat
Div – an unofficial term for a lesson
Dry Bobs – cricketers, not to be confused with Wet Bobs (rowers) or Slack Bobs (boys who don’t play sport)
Extra Work – homework
President of Pop – the head prefect within The Eton Society
Tails – school uniform
Stick-Ups – a wing collar with white bow tie worn by senior boys who have distinguished themselves