'It's not all oiks and toffs: teaching in a boarding school is different to the state sector – and not necessarily easier'

The workload at a boarding school can be punishing, writes one deputy head. The classes might be smaller – and the working day different – but there are still teenagers, league tables and the pressure to get results

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I have taught in boarding schools for 20 years, but I always intended to teach in the state sector. I applied to state schools early on, getting interviews more often not. It was after a few rejections that I asked a young headteachers of a comprehensive in South Wales what I should be doing differently to get an offer. His reply surprised and saddened me. He said that with a PhD I would have more luck in the independent sector: “Some schools like mine will wonder if you will stick around,” he said. With my first child on the way, I took his advice. Within three weeks I had had five job offers and had accepted one. Once back in college, I noticed that some of the lecturers barely spoke to me after I’d taken the job.

I’d chosen a road. And once you’ve moved into the independent sector it is difficult to move out of it, even if you want to. In fact, I don’t know a single teacher who has moved from a fee-paying school to one in the maintained sector. In contrast, I have worked with many who have moved the other way. They do it for a number of reasons: the pay used to be better (but is now roughly comparable), there is less paperwork, more freedom with the curriculum and some schools offer accommodation and fee remission for staff children. There are other, relatively minor, things independent school teachers often take for granted, such as private healthcare, membership of the school gym and free meals. But very often, in interview, teachers say they want to move because of crippling underfunding and because there is a perception that student behaviour is better in independent schools.  

Boarding school life

If you do move, what can the school expect in return? Is it really easier to work in this sector? Well, there are no typical working days for an independent boarding school teacher – and it’s different in a day school – but if you are involved in a house, the 40-50 boarders will go to breakfast at around 7.30am and are registered at 8am. Chapel can take place at 8.20am and lessons can start 20 minutes later. If you are a member of staff on duty, you are likely to be involved in each of these events and then go straight into lessons. 

There is no protected time in a teaching day, although independent school teachers will on average teach fewer lessons than their state school colleagues – and almost certainly considerably fewer students. Free periods can be taken up meeting tutorial pupils, or running clinics. If your school runs a winter timetable then, on certain days – to accommodate two or three afternoons of sport – you will be expected to supervise activities or coach a team, before going back into lessons at around 4.30pm – until 6.30pm, when supper starts. Again, if you are on duty, you will be expected to supervise the students eating and clearing up. In most boarding schools, "prep" starts around 7.15pm and runs for two hours. At this time students complete work set during the day. This is supervised by a member of staff.

Typically, a teacher will do one evening duty a week and is likely to finish between 9.30pm and 10pm, when the housemistress or housemaster takes over. Oh, and there are also Saturday lessons, which go on up until lunchtime – after which comes more sport, with some teachers having to take sports teams to away fixtures. Many colleagues don’t return on a Saturday until late into the evening. Like most teachers, Sunday is a day for marking and planning, unless you are on duty, when you have to supervise the school, or run activities and detentions.

Other demands

It can be gruelling – and there are other demands made of staff that are becoming increasingly prevalent. The pressure to improve on examination results every year is, in many schools, relentless. League tables matter, as do the number of students you get to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Parents pay a lot of money – usually more than £30,000 per annum for full boarding – to get outstanding results. Some want a business-class level of service every day of the week, 24/7. And what about student behaviour? Well, it sometimes comes as a shock to some teachers new to the sector that there are students who are not motivated, who are not academic highflyers and can be disruptive in class. They are, irrespective of background, teenagers who are testing boundaries.

Perception lags behind reality, nowhere more than around schools. The lazy stereotypes that dog both sectors, of oiks and toffs, reveal a lot about those on both sides who, for political ends, seek to subvert the good work done by teachers, irrespective of which "code" they work in. All teachers are trying to help young people. Twenty years ago, on the advice of a stranger, I chose one road because it had the "better claim" of immediate job security. The other road shut down when I made that choice. But now, there is a part of me that feels a twinge of guilt for that path not taken. You can’t travel both, but it’s an illusion to claim that one is any easier than the other.

David James is deputy head (academic) at Bryanston School in Dorset and tweets at @drdavidajames

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