Changing Landscape

By | 3 February 2011

Hilary Moriarty reports from the State Boarding Schools conference, where speakers included Professor Sir Tim Brighouse and Ian Hislop
The best news for delegates attending the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA) conference in mid-January was that Ian Hislop was able to give the after-dinner speech.
When you book a speaker like Ian, you just cross your fingers and hope that no BBC big-shot will sneak in and steal him before he gets to the table. Happily on this occasion he was able instead to enjoy dinner before regaling his audience with tales of BBC big-shots, behind the scenes glimpses of Have I Got News for You? and reflections on his time at Private Eye, where getting sued in your first week is actually a feather in your cap.
Less happy news for delegates was that their first speaker, Dr Piers Sellers OBE, Britain’s first astronaut and a former pupil at Cranbrook School in Kent, which hosted the conference this year, was recalled to NASA duties following the shooting of congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford.
The congresswoman’s husband and his twin are both astronauts, so their personal tragedy affected plans for the whole team.
Standing in at short notice was Adam Nicolson, author and broadcaster, sharing his thoughts on the King James Bible – wait for the BBC programme later this year. At a time when “real history” is back in the news, this was a timely presentation on the creation of one of the most influential books in our culture.
Professor Sir Tim Brighouse reminded delegates of some of the ingredients and processes which make good schools great, and called for longitudinal research to prove what boarding schools would say – that boarding has a hugely positive impact on pupils’ progress.
Politicians took the floor during the event as well – local MP Helen Grant, Damian Hinds, MP and member of the Education Select Committee, and Kent councillor Gary Cooke offered their views on the changing landscape of education under the new government.
Indeed, the changing landscape was uppermost in many minds: several state boarding schools are well on their way to becoming academies, a process not without difficulty because of their boarding operations. Members of the Association Committee have been working hard with officials of the Department for Education (DfE) to smooth the way for these excellent schools to achieve academy status.
The political will is certainly there; the problems which had to be addressed first centred on the fact that in this county education is free at the point of delivery, but state boarding schools are able to charge to cover boarding costs. How would academy legislation handle this apparently odd species of school? Between them, state boarding schools have no fewer than 5,000 boarders. Getting the rules right for these schools to become academies if they choose is vital.
One might imagine that this process would be all the easier, given that three of the present academies intend to start boarding operations in September 2011, and have received substantial funding to build new boarding houses.
Harefield Academy in north London, The Priory Academy in Lincoln, and Wellington Academy in Wiltshire are all in the throes of building to accommodate their first tranche of boarding pupils in the autumn. It would be reasonable to presume that at DfE level, the details of fees and admissions had been worked out well in advance.
SBSA chair Ray McGovern, head of Sexey’s School in Somerset, opened the conference by welcoming these newcomers. While the number of state boarding schools has been stable for some years, there are fewer now than there were 15 years ago.
It was a great pleasure to be able to announce that this year the association has grown by three new members, day schools which have seen the wisdom of adding a boarding house to their already thriving operation.
And in the mid of earnest and serious debate about issues of concern and interest to delegates, Cranbrook School chef Graeme Edmonds drew in two Michelin-starred chefs, Tim Johnson and Paul Dunstane, to assist him in preparing the annual conference dinner. With seven courses of banquet-quality food, the chefs and the school catering team excelled themselves. The School Food Trust would have been proud.
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