Up the stairs to Central School

John Simkins, the Trust’s Administrator, visits Central School of English in London, which has long been a partner of MSMT.

An entrance off Tottenham Court Road in London leads to a narrow flight of stairs, its centre worn down by the feet of generations of language students. It is not surprising, as this building has hosted the Central School of English since 1968.

For all its narrowness, however, the listed building at 1 Tottenham Court Road is large enough to contain 14 classrooms. On the day of my visit, in July 2015, there were about 60 students present, of about a dozen different nationalities. They included four young Italians who were benefiting from month-long bursaries provided by the Monte San Martino Trust.

About 20 MSMT students were booked to go to Central School in 2015, following in the footsteps of several hundred who have had bursaries since they were first awarded by the Trust at the end of the 1980s. Central School, along with CSE-Oxford House, at Wheatley, on the edge of Oxford, has been a long-standing partner of MSMT.

David Mullany, Central School’s principal, says he and his staff appreciate MSMT students because “they almost always want to make a contribution”. They are often to the fore in classwork and projects, he says, and will readily talk about their family histories. Their stories, of course, relate to the Second World War, when their ancestors may have been among the many brave Italian country people who sheltered escaping Allied prisoners of war, thus putting their own lives and property at risk of reprisals from the Germans and Italian Fascists.

George Tsounias, the college’s Sales Executive, thinks that MSMT students are especially motivated by having been granted a bursary. “They know they have been granted a special opportunity,” he says.

Veronica Ghidini and Jacopo Mandolesi outside Central School of English – either side of an “I love London” T-shirt

An MSMT student is usually lodged by the college in London zones 3 or 4, often with a family that has previously hosted an MSMT bursary holder. Their morning journey to school will involve a commute of half an hour or a little more – the average commute in London takes 50 minutes.

At the beginning of a course, the pupil is assessed and channelled into one of five levels of ability. The school’s day starts with an assembly, or “plenary”, followed at 9.15 a.m. by a 90-minute lesson focusing on accuracy and grammar. A 15-minute break precedes an hour-long oral class and, then, after another short break, there is a project class leading up to lunch. At this point, the students descend the well-trodden steps to forage for a snack or a sandwich. For those like MSMT students, who are on a full-day course, there is a two-hour lesson in the afternoon.

After school, still as part of the course, there are three teacher-led activities each week, such as a walking tour of Westminster or Covent Garden. At the weekend, students can, at their own expense, join trips to places such as Bath or Oxford.

The draw of London prompts about two-thirds of MSMT applicants to request a course at Central School, and this was the case with the two I met during my visit. Jacopo Mandolesi, aged 21, from Fermo in the Marche, wanted to see as much of London as possible while working hard at college. “I am studying finance at university and English is necessary,” he says.

The motivation for Veronica Ghidini, 19, however, whose good spoken English owes much to her English teachers at Parma as well as to her habit of watching English-language films, is rather particular. “My dream is to go and live in Australia,” she says. As for London, she says, “it is a very beautiful and historic city. The only thing is that everybody is running fast. I don’t like it – people are like machines!”

One thing that Jacopo and Veronica have in common is a family history of helping escaping prisoners of war.

In 1943, Jacopo’s grandfather, Raffaele Liberati, then aged 10, witnessed the exodus of Allied prisoners from camps in the Marche. Raffaele recalled seeing a British sergeant run towards him while he was working in the fields with his family. The family fed and sheltered the PoW – and the soldier’s gratitude greatly impressed the young boy.

Veronica Ghidini’s family was caught up in a similar experience when 10 English officers, who had escaped from Fontanellato, near Parma, descended on a hamlet in Bardi, in the province of Parma. They were escorted to nearby villages by ex-emigrants who spoke English. Later, eight of the officers moved on, leaving two in the care of Giovanni Rizzi, the grandfather of Veronica’s grandmother, for about three weeks. After the war, Giovanni received an Alexander Certificate acknowledging the help he had given.

Although a family history of protecting PoWs is not a condition of receiving an MSMT bursary, the stories – and the importance of passing them down the generations to young people such as Jacopo and Veronica – go to the heart of the work done by Monte San Martino Trust.