State Boarding Schools – An experiment worth trying

The BBC recently carried a story about the Durand Academy which is opening a state boarding school.  The school has an above average proportion of Free Schools Meals so clearly has a catchment in deprived areas and the plan is for pupils to attend the school from the age of 13. The venture is being funded partly from the sale of school assets and partly by government money.

Boarding Schools in the UK are richly laden with connotations of our class system which like a zombie in a B-movie just refuses to die, despite heartfelt beliefs that it is dead or dying. ‘Boarding’ is seen as something for the children of the social and financial elite with annual fees well above the average family’s entire annual income.  Other stories in the press this week questioned whether private schools should be allowed the tax breaks of charities to fund luxuries such as golf courses under the proviso that they share their facilities with the community, stories which show just what a minefield of social class this issue is.  Boarding also has negative connotations, of bullying and systematic psychological abuse of children taken from their families and forced to live in what the sociologist Goffman would call ‘total institutions’ where their every waking moment is controlled by a system.

But put these ideas to one side for a moment and consider the exciting experiment which is underway. The students will board from Monday to Friday with the immediate advantage that the school can provide a much more balanced curriculum and set of activities than a conventional school day. Parts of the total institution may actually work massively in favour of children from deprived households, they may need structure in their lives which is lacking because of chaotic situations at home, or something as simple as 3 nutritional meals a day and a place to study in peace and quiet.

The cost of this education per student will obviously be higher than conventional state schools, but consider the costs of a failed education leading to a life of crime (and prison is never a cheap option for those at the end of that journey), or the costs of a failed education leading to low aspirations and unemployment.  The DfE spokesman in the BBC article got it all wrong of course (which is why I guess he or she is not named). They said:

“The poorest children are too often left behind because of weak schools and lack of opportunity”

There are of course weak schools, but anyone with even the briefest acquaintance of education sociology would know that social class and a child’s home life are by far the biggest predictor of educational achievement. Boarding during the week could give the state a way to mitigate the disadvantage of social class, and whilst it is unlikely that a generation of barristers and stockbrokers will be engendered by this intervention, I feel that positive outcomes could be achieved with a single cohort.

I didn’t go to boarding school, but having spent most of my working life in education, I have had the privilege of attending many residential settings such as Summer Schools, Conferences and so on.  If organised well, the sense of shared community, of having ample time in the day (and into the evening) to achieve things and the lifting of the pressures of everyday life can really enhance one’s sense of what can be learned.  Monks who banded together into residential communities knew this of course.

For the Lambeth experiment to succeed it needs careful planning and execution. Care must be given to the pastoral needs of the students (many of whom will probably never have ventured beyond their immediate neighbourhoods), and care also given to the parents and carers so they understand what is happening and what it means.  The project needs proper evaluation and time to flourish. And the political class need to put aside their narrow educational ideologies and give serious consideration as to whether this type of intervention can really make a difference to the life chances of young people from poor backgrounds.

BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13467354

2 thoughts on “State Boarding Schools – An experiment worth trying

  1. Hi Matt
    There are several generalisations in your post, such as ‘ but consider the costs of a failed education leading to a life of crime …………low aspirations or unemployment. Yes this can happen but that is also a matter of choice by the individual. I know many graduates who are unemployed who have not turned to crime.

    However my main concern is the impact on the family. Consider a situation where these places are limited and there are three children in a family only one of which gets this privilege. This could, I suggest would lead to resentment.
    Back in the days of the 11+ where one sibling may go to a grammar school and the other not, I know of several families where this caused friction. There would have to be a limit on numbers so what would the selection process be?

    I also hear the horror stories that you allude too. What about the negative impact of being away from the security of the family?

    Surely we should be striving to improve the state sector education for all, not certain sectors of society, and not all of that sector at that.
    With regard to tax breaks for private schools, no they should not have them. This comes out of the public purse and before anyone says ‘ then we will opt out of paying that share of tax’ education is for the betterment of the society we all live in.
    I was recently in Queensland Australia where the money given to private schools from the public purse is a real bone of contention, especially as their state sector education has come in for some criticism.

    I am sorry, this is not ‘an exciting experiment’ it is tinkering around the fringes of an education system that requires serious attention for the betterment of the whole of society.

    We have already seen the university fees debacle and the confusion and division that will cause. This will introduce similar confusion and division in the secondary sector.

    Perhaps we can discuss further when we meet next.

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