Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The secret's out

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The DfES has been looking to state boarding schools as one answer to improving the chances of looked-after children. ASCL member Paul Spencer Ellis writes about this unique category of maintained schools.

A colleague once recounted the story of phoning the DfES helpline to ask a question about boarding schools. He was told that, as they were all independent schools, the DfES had no information available.

My friend replied that he was concerned to hear that as, for the past four years, he had been under the illusion that he was head of a state boarding school.

Five or more years ago, this could easily have been true. About that time, state boarding schools were running an advertising campaign under the slogan 'education's best kept secret' and few people, even inside education, knew that there was a thriving group of maintained sector boarding schools.

Over the last couple of years, state boarding schools have come into the limelight, with £25 million capital invested in expansion and refurbishment and several newspaper articles about the DfES Pathfinder project to place vulnerable young people in boarding schools, not to mention the talk of some academies planning to offer boarding.

Despite our higher profile, I know that many colleagues still have only a sketchy understanding of what we are and how we operate. 

There are 31 state boarding schools, in which the local authority finances the education and parents pay the cost of boarding. Then there are two schools, in the Scilly Isles and rural Northumberland, where the local authority provides a hostel for children who cannot return home every day because of high tides or long distances.

Finally, there are Welbeck, the Defence Sixth Form College near Loughborough, and the Duke of York's Royal Military School in Dover, for children from a service family background.

The majority are co-educational comprehensives, though there is one girls' school, a small number of boys' schools and a few grammar schools. Two schools offer primary as well as secondary education. A few teach on Saturdays and consequently have longer holidays, but the majority are Monday to Friday schools with many boarders going home at the weekend and a programme of activities on Saturday and Sunday for those who remain.

Boarding or residential

Some people assume 'boarding' is the same as 'residential' but there are differences. Residential often implies special provision and high staffing levels. Boarding generally means mainstream schooling with lower levels of funding.

For instance, a boarding school may have one member of staff on duty in a 50-bed boarding house during the quieter parts of the day. No members of staff are on duty at night either; there will be a member of boarding staff on-call, but fast asleep!

Most state boarding schools are specialist schools, but regardless of specialism, boarding gives us the time to do much more than many other schools in terms of sport, music, drama and many other co-curricular activities.

Teachers who run these activities have a different relationship with pupils that extends beyond the classroom and gives them a more rounded insight into the children. Visitors often comment on the high quality of pupil-staff relationships.

In most state boarding schools, a proportion of the teaching staff also work in boarding, for which they may receive free accommodation and food and sometimes extra pay or a reduced timetable. Many teachers are tutors in a boarding house where they may also have a flat.

There may also be non-teaching boarding staff who may have trained as teachers or may be from a youth work background. Some of these staff want to try working in school before doing a teacher training course.

The time commitment of teaching and working in boarding is not for everyone, so schools tend to make it very clear to prospective applicants what the demands are as well as the benefits.

For a newly qualified teacher with a student loan and a huge overdraft, there is a certain attraction in a job that also provides rent-free accommodation, no utilities bills and free meals in term time. We can thus often attract very high quality fields for NQT posts. The community sense of boarding schools, where teacher-pupil relationships tend to be very positive, is also an attraction for experienced staff.

Leadership structure

Leadership teams vary from school to school, but the senior leadership teams (SLT) tend to be bigger to cover the management of boarding. For example, at Royal Alexandra and Albert School, we have four deputies for almost 700 pupils. One runs primary, one is responsible for boarding, one has the teaching and learning remit and the other has behaviour management and day-to-day running of the school.

The bursar, also a member of SLT, is a highly qualified accountant with a budget of around £7 million per year. All the SLT live on site in three- or four-bedroom flats or houses.

We each have a weekday when we are on call from 3.30pm until 8.30am the next morning. We also have a rota from midday on Saturday, when lessons end, until Monday mornings.

Each boarding house has a head of house and deputy who can deal with almost all problems that occur. We have a medical centre running 24/7 with qualified nursing staff, although there has to be a member of the SLT on call as backup.

With 400 boarders aged 7 to 18, plus some 300 local children, the school has 111 members of staff who live on site and a catering department of 24 which has to produce meals seven days a week. On Sundays, boarders have a lie-in and brunch is served from 11am, so the catering staff have one later start per week.

Looked-after children

Many parents and children see us as a half-way house between day school and going away to university. As a group of schools, we figure highly in performance tables - an aggregate 77 per cent achieving five or more A-C GCSEs over the last couple of years - and we have been successful in persuading government to put capital into the sector to finance refurbishment and expansion.

The national concern about the poor GCSE results achieved by looked-after children has also increased interest in the sector because state boarding schools generally have a good record of working with children with difficult backgrounds who may need the added stability.

It is important to understand, however, that such pupils have to be volunteers and by no means all such children are suited to boarding.

Finally, the cost of independent boarding education is now, on average, more than £20,000 per year. We provide a similar service at around £10,000 or less, which makes us more financially attractive to parents who could not afford independent education.

Of course not every family has a spare £10k per year. Royal Albert and Alexandra School has a charitable trust which provides means-tested and often free places to children with a demonstrable need for boarding.

Many state boarding schools are supporting the DfES Pathfinder Project, launched in autumn 2006, which aims to place vulnerable children in boarding, financed by local authorities and charitable trusts, as a proactive step to prevent them becoming looked-after children.

One in 17 boarders in this country are in state schools. We provide stability and focus on education for young people who need it, which can be missing for pupils in day schools.

We insist that our pupils do prep (homework) and that can make a real difference if it is carefully set. We also ensure that pupils start the day with a proper breakfast and end it by going to bed at a sensible time - things that many colleagues in day schools believe would help many of their own pupils. 

For more information on state boarding schools  visit www.sbsa.org.uk

Paul Spencer Ellis is chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association, and Head of the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, Reigate.

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