Rich ethos can inspire us all;Last word

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
BRITISH boarding schools are facing great changes at the moment.

OK, I know 90 per cent of you are not remotely interested in schools which only educate an unrepresentative 1 per cent of the country's pupils; but wait.

This may be a minority world, but its current upheavals might hold ________ lessons for us all.

For a decade these schools have been seeing fewer full-time boarders, and more pupils who live nearby and want to go home at weekends. This means that many are faced with dropping traditional Saturday school, and lengthening their year to compensate - running, in fact, like day schools.

But the minute such issues are raised, the term "boarding ethos" also rears its head.

"Boarding ethos" is what everyone in the sector wants to hang on to, and what many fear would seep away if the six-day week was changed.

At face value, it means a school that is up and running all the time, where teachers live alongside pupils, and are involved in their leisure and pastoral care, and where all pupils take part in sporting and other out-of school activities.

But underlying this are subtler things: quality of relationships; the sense of school community; the emphasis on shared values; in short, a self-contained world which shapes every aspect of a child's life.

It's an atmosphere easily lampooned - "Good pass, St Cake's!" - by outsiders, but one which, to those steeped in it, makes many things about day schools look half-hearted.

Where are the sports fixtures?

What about the music programme? Why do teachers seem to know so little about their pupils?

And why do so many school buildings lie empty at evenings and weekends?

This last can also seem strange to those who have known day schools used differently. When my children went to elementary school in America, they and their friends treated the unfenced school campus as their own. They rollerbladed on the blacktop, played baseball on the pitches, and swung on the swings. If they needed something from the library, they just cycled back to school and got it - the building stayed open until well into the evening, teachers or janitors were usually around, and no one ever expected the children to steal things or cause damage.

Compare and contrast our own primary schools, many of which are shooing the last children from the playground at four o'clock, while after-school clubs have to be cobbled together in whatever ill- adapted church hall or community centre comes to hand.

"Boarding ethos" is an atmosphere intended to help children grow in mind, body, and spirit, which is obviously what all children need, probably none more than those of parents furthest from finding the pound;10,000 a year, or more, it costs to buy this particular mode in the private sector.

But school goals are being narrowed down in order to push up levels of literacy and numerary, which inevitably means squeezing out many of the "frills" of a rounded education. Does this also mean squeezing down the spirit in which school life is conducted?

Not necessarily.

No schools focus more closely on raising basic academic standard than those run by volunteers on Saturdays in many African-Caribean communities, yet one of the things these students saythey like is the different relationship more relaxed, yet more respectful - they have with their teachers.

Meanwhile, schools that have brought parents, pupils and teachers together to hammer out a statement of shared values say that this exercise feeds directly back into the learning life of the school.

You don't have to do everything to be a good school. An education director of one of the country's most blighted inner city areas recently questioned whether the anonymous concrete comprehensives of yesterday were the right environments in which to educate today's troubled teenagers.

Wouldn't smaller schools with fewer teachers (and curriculum shortfalls made up by computer) offer them a more sympathetic environment in which to learn?

This, of course, falls very far short of the full "boarding ethos", which usually comes with a price tag only the affluent can afford.

But since the rich have always had a nose for sniffing out what is in their own best interest, isn't it in everyone else's to at least look at where the trail leads?

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