Taking the lead: BSA – Opening doors

By | 2 June 2011

Hilary Moriarty reports from the Boarding Schools’ Association’s annual conference for headteachers

“I was a boarder at Glenalmond from 1965 until 1969 and do not remember a single cold shower or a single freezing dormitory. I am whole-heartedly in favour of boarding and I am on your side.”
Lord Falconer of Thoroton’s declaration at the annual gathering of boarding school heads in Leeds last month was greeted with nods of approval from the assembled leaders of some 120 schools.
In particular, Lord Falconer lent his political weight to the argument that international students coming to British boarding schools should be granted a visa which acknowledged their status as contributors to the British economy rather than a drain on public resources or risky individuals likely to disappear into the murky world of illegal immigration.
Elsewhere, Boarding School Association chair Jan Scarrow, head of Badminton School in Bristol, celebrated the fact that the recent Independent Schools Council census figures had revealed that boarding numbers and also numbers of international students in independent schools had risen.
The conference came in the midst of publicity about boarding being an intrinsically damaging form of education, a theory promulgated by a psychotherapist writing in the British Journal of Psychotherapy. It was therefore refreshing to hear from speakers like Lord Falconer and Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady and sister of London mayor Boris Johnson.
Ms Johnson went so far as to entitle her presentation “How boarding saved my life”, and spoke with great humour and some emotion of her somewhat unusual childhood – a mother often unwell, a father often abroad on business – which caused her to love every minute of the completely stable and predictable world she found when sent to a British prep school. For Rachel, it was just a great place where everyone knew the rules, including, as she put it, “the adults”.
A marker for how far boarding schools have come since (for some) “the bad old days” was the presentation from Dr Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College in Berkshire, on making classrooms and schools themselves more active places, with pupils doing real preparation for lessons rather than what he described as “gurge” – the all-too-common regurgitation of what teachers had already told them. He urged his audience to ensure that teachers set tasks which pushed children to enquiry and discovery, rather than what could be mindless repetition.
Patrick Derham, head of Rugby, spoke with passion of his school’s efforts to widen participation in the education it could offer.
For the last 10 years, the school has worked very professionally to raise funds to enable places to be offered to youngsters who will both benefit from what the school has to offer and be models within their own communities of how education can change your life for the better.
This is no lip-service to the demands of the charity commissioners, who have declared their wish that independent schools should do more to admit students from families with little money. This is a well thought out and resourced scheme which works with community leaders in east London to identify suitable candidates to take advantage of learning and living at Rugby.
Support for the students includes recognition of the difficulties for student and family alike during holiday time, and specific tutor and mentor support in school for children in what may at first feel like an alien environment.
For quiet inspiration, the conference turned to the Poet Laureate. Reading from her poems after the gala dinner, Carol Ann Duffy engaged, entertained and amused her audience, and offered them a singular wisdom with which to return to their busy schools for another year.
This article originally appeared in Sec Ed and is available at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/cgi-bin/go.pl/article/article.html?uid=84228;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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