Boarding schools: lucky for some?

By Geoff Gee

Thursday 16 January 2014

In his speech launching the Ofsted Annual Report in December 2013 Sir Michael Wilshaw talked about children who are ‘unlucky’ in their school. He did not have much to say, on this occasion, about children who are unlucky in their family.

What can schools do for pupils whose home life is an obstacle to academic success? In a previous speech discussing ‘poverty of expectation’ and the role of family background in underachievement at school, the Ofsted chief did address these issues, saying:

It is sometimes said that ‘schools cannot do it alone’ but this is not quite true. Exceptional schools can make up for grave disadvantages faced by young people. [  ] In the process they almost become surrogate parents. [  ] The most effective schools can and do make up the deficit.

Unseen Children June 2013 

How can a school do this? Sir Michael points to examples of academies and other exceptional schools in deprived areas, such as Mossbourne Community Academy, where he was headteacher. To ‘make up the deficit’ can start with something as simple – or exceptional – as the school staff helping to get a child to school in the mornings when parents or carers are not doing this.  

But it might be necessary to go further than that. A speech last year by schools minister Lord Nash suggested that the Government is also encouraging other options that go much further, including state boarding schools. According to Nash: 

Boarding is clearly not right for every child, vulnerable or otherwise. But where a state boarding school can meet a vulnerable child’s needs by providing stability, strong pastoral care and an environment rich in academic and extra-curricular opportunities, the results can be life-changing. [Emphasis Added]

The Nash speech refers to state boarding schools as ‘education’s best kept secret’. They are certainly a relatively small part of the state school system: 37 of over 20,000 schools in England, offering over 5,000 boarding places. There is a full list and further details on the website of the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA), which also sets out their view of the benefits of boarding schools and the reasons why pupils attend them, which can be linked to a variety of family circumstances.

The Government has acted to increase the number of boarding places in the English state system. There are now a few high-profile projects to create new boarding provision: Holyport College, sponsored by Eton College, is due to open in September 2014; Durand Academy, currently a primary and middle school in Lambeth, has plans for a boarding school in Sussex for pupils 13-18, although this is facing obstacles in the planning process and criticism from the chairman of the SBSA. The consultation on changes to school organisation opened in September 2013 included a proposal that it should be easier for a school to add boarding provision. Making boarding school places more easily available to young people has also had support from former Labour Schools Minister (and boarding school pupil) Lord Adonis, who has promoted charities that make this possible by funding the additional costs of boarding places.

Can we learn anything about the role of boarding schools from other countries? With the help of colleagues in the Eurydice network we have looked at examples of publicly funded mainstream boarding schools in other European countries.

Commonly found rationales for state boarding school provision, in the UK and across Europe, include geographical accessibility, such as in rural areas, and parental work commitments in foreign countries. But there are also some examples of schools offering distinctive educational approaches that are relevant to the issues raised by Wilshaw and Nash.  

The efterskoler in Denmark aim to offer young people a supportive environment

[which] takes care of both young people’s professional and personal development and prepares them for future education and career choices.  

Italy has the convitti nationalewhich have a heritage reaching back centuries and today, according to one of the leading schools, offer to help students

learn the meaning of living together and service to others with the aim of preparing them to play an active role as citizens of Europe and the world.

Most directly relevant are the internats d’excellence in France, which are funded as part of an urban regeneration programme and officially described as being for 

students from an environment not conducive to academic success.

The debate in France about the internats is particularly interesting, as it focuses attention on some of the fundamentals of any school: the profile of the intake, the school ethos and how the money is allocated.

Discussion of the internats has seen polarised positions. Some point to evidence of their success, in terms of raising attainment and aspirations. Others question the appropriate use of funds, asking que faire pour les autres? – what to do about the young people from similar circumstances who do not get the chance to attend a boarding school. The French Government has recently proposed a revised policy in the draft Finance Bill, committing 150m Euros to add 6,000 places at internats de la réussite (boarding schools of success).

There is no suggestion that funds on that scale will be available from government for boarding places in England. Instead, the main funding for disadvantage pupils takes the form of the £2.5bn pupil premium, available to all schools, reflecting the view expressed by Wilshaw in Unseen Children that

disadvantage and poor achievement are not necessarily tied to urban deprivation and inner city blight.

Those from a disadvantaged background who have attended one of the convittiefterskoler, internats, or a school in the SBSA may be the lucky ones. For the rest to get lucky will need policy makers and school leaders to recognise what it entails for a mainstream school to provide, in Nash’s words,

stability, strong pastoral care and an environment rich in academic and extra-curricular opportunities.