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Leathersellers' Scholarships

07 March 2024
Reading time 8 mins

Celebrating the long-term success of The Leathersellers’ Scholarships at Colfe’s School.


Words by Liz Lightfoot
Photography by Paul Read

Each Monday in term time Ejiro Ndi-Efam introduces the assembly at Colfe’s, the independent day school in Lewisham. He joined the Sixth Form only a year ago but is already the school captain and a role model for younger students.

He’s one of over 100 academically talented teenagers from local state schools who have been offered the opportunity to be educated at Colfe’s Sixth Form through the Leathersellers’ Scholarship Programme. Each year the scholarships pay the full fees for an agreed cohort of students whose families could not otherwise afford them. In the past year this was nine Year 12 and seven Year 13 students.

“I’m studying Maths, Physics and Economics, and the teaching and resources here are amazing,” says Ejiro,17. “I wasn’t having the best time at Deptford Green School. I felt I didn’t fit in with my peers. It was as if they were looking for a fight all the time. My mother is a nurse, and we wouldn’t have been able to afford the fees without the scholarship. I’m very grateful for this programme and I hope I can go on to make the Leathersellers proud,” he adds.

Former scholars can be found across the workplace and in professions such as law, engineering and medical science. A common factor is the desire to give something back, and some have joined the Leathersellers’ Company as members, become Colfe’s governors, or returned to their previous state secondary schools as mentors. Joseph Mafe, 27, who studied Maths at the University of Bristol and is now a qualified accountant working for KPMG, has been a Colfe’s governor for three years. He returns to his former state school, Conisborough College in Catford, to talk to students about the opportunities available to them through the scholarships and higher education. “I didn’t think about what might be possible for me to do in life, or even know about Russell Group universities, before I got to Colfe’s,” he says.

With top grades in A-level Maths, Further Maths and Chemistry, Akin Asisi-Agiri went on to study Maths and Economics at the University of Warwick and now works as a business analyst for a global management consulting firm. “I’m incredibly grateful to the Leathersellers’ Foundation and Colfe’s. I would like to think that my self-drive would have brought me to a similar position, but I can see it would have proved difficult without their support. Not just in an academic sense, because there were so many other intangibles that helped me, such as the opportunities to network with like-minded people who aspired to work in similar fields and to receive advice from the teachers and alumni to help you get there,” says Akin.

“The enthusiasm I see from these scholars is palpable; they come in with an appetite for success that is infectious for current pupils who raise their game to compete.”

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Demi Cole, 26, recalls how she nearly missed out on a place despite passing the academic tests. “My previous state school was underperforming and received a very poor rating from Ofsted. It did not give me a good reference when I applied for the scholarship, but the Colfe’s headteacher interviewed me and decided to give me a chance,” says Demi who went on to get A*A*A at A-level.

The Leathersellers’ Foundation also helped to support her while she was studying Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. “I’m a big fan of the Leathersellers – they have tangibly changed my life and now I do a lot of work with children who are disadvantaged from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I want to keep giving back with the same generosity that the Leathersellers showed to me,” says Demi, who has a training contract with a firm of London solicitors. “Initially I was very nervous about being a scholarship girl, but I found a lot of the people there are from south-east London with accents similar to mine. When I went to Cambridge later on, well that was a culture shock, but at Colfe’s people weren’t that different and I felt I fitted in.”

The Company has had close links with Colfe’s since 1658, when the governance of the latter was bequeathed to it by founder Abraham Colfe. The scholarships were launched in 2008 for the benefit of local teenagers and they also helped to widen the social mix of students at the school where 10% of the Sixth Form now qualify for free school meals, a high proportion for the independent sector.

Since 2010 the Leathersellers’ Foundation has given £2.6 million for the scholarships with a further £883,000 committed over the next five years. Headteacher Richard Russell says: “It has made a huge difference. We want to be a school that reflects its geographical location and our Leathersellers’ scholars bring another dimension to the Sixth Form. They are incredibly ambitious to seize the opportunities opening up to them and they raise the intellectual horsepower of the school, besides enhancing its social dynamic.”

Kathryn McNeill, Colfe’s Director of Development & Alumni Relations, says the scheme has become such an important part of Colfe’s that it is raising money to endow the programme in perpetuity. “The enthusiasm I see from these scholars is palpable; they come in with an appetite for success that is infectious for current pupils who raise their game to compete. Our scholars greatly value things they may not have got in their previous schools, such as access to different sports and music lessons.”

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Teachers at local schools have helped over the years by identifying possible beneficiaries. Mahim Chowdhury, 21, a Leathersellers’ scholar 2018–2020, recalls: “A teacher at my school in east London encouraged me to apply after he met a teacher from Colfe’s who told him about the scholarships. At first it was a challenge because the teaching level was much higher and I was surrounded by smart people – at my old school we had 30–40 pupils in a class of mixed abilities. But everyone was welcoming and there were clinics after school to help us catch up. It made me feel like anything was possible” says Mahim, who is undertaking a four-year MSci in Natural Sciences at University College London and is planning a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

The scholars talk gratefully of teachers at their former state schools who believed in them, but the shortage of resources, high staff turnover and lack of ambition among their peers proved a challenge for many. Peter Tran, 21, a Leathersellers’ scholar 2018–2020, graduated from the University of Liverpool with a first class BSc Hons degree in Economics in summer 2023.

“Coming from a low socio-economic background and a lower standard secondary school where many teachers were temporary and you had to teach yourself most of the time, I might have made it to university, but I would never have had the chance to study economics at Liverpool University and to work in financial services in the City of London,” he says. “Besides the very high standard of teaching, it really broadened my horizons because I got to know about things such as networking and I was able to meet alumni to get an insight into different industries,” he adds.

The scholars believe that the benefits of the scheme are far-reaching, going beyond the individual beneficiaries. For example, Joy Maton, 21, now studying biomedical science at Cardiff University, is partnering with her former secondary – Greenwich Free School – to provide online and in-person tuition. “I have a love of learning and I want to pass that on and show what it can do for you. I’ll always be grateful to the Leathersellers’ Foundation because the scholarship helped me to recognise myself and what I might achieve. At my old school it was easy to get swayed by those around you, but my time at Colfe’s gave me the confidence to follow my own path,” she says.

In addition, the scholarships contribute towards greater social mobility and access to professions traditionally dominated by independently educated and upper middle class students. As a former recipient, barrister Serena Cheng KC, is herself an example of the opportunities a scholarship can offer. “They are life-changing, not only in terms of the quality of education that the scholars receive, but also the practical support they are given and the self-belief they acquire in relation to university applications, interviews and career preparation.” Serena now serves as a governor of the school and is a member of the Leathersellers’ Company.

“Ideally, I would want to see systemic social change which would allow all young people access to the same opportunities in the workplace.” Until that happens, the scholarships are helping to bring about this change, one student at a time.

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