Selective engineering

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Does it really make sense to send children in care to private boarding schools? David James thinks not

There are many in the Labour party who would like my school closed down.

They may not say so in public, but to many on the political left, selective schooling is anathema to their view of a fair society.

With Tony Blair as Prime Minister, abolition is never on the agenda.

However, those who work in the independent sector probably shudder a little at the prospect of Gordon Brown succeeding Mr Blair. The Chancellor is that dangerous thing: an intelligent politician with convictions and a grudge against "old Britain". He would, I suspect, happily close down every fee-paying school in the country. However, such an act would infuriate a sizeable proportion of an electorate who actually aspire to sending their children to an independent school. For many in the Labour party we are a necessary evil; the challenge for them is how to make us more palatable. To put it bluntly: how can we work a little bit more for the Government?

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has signalled that the Government would like to see state boarding schools take more disruptive and disadvantaged pupils. She has also indicated that independent schools could be coerced into providing spaces for such pupils, at the cost of the taxpayer. Ms Kelly has asked Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, to look into whether boarding schools could take children into their care.

In last week's TES, Sir Cyril put forward the idea that state boarding schools should play a role in accommodating vulnerable and challenging pupils. But despite his reticence about private schools, it is clear that the independent sector will be asked to take a part in this proposed expansion of pastoral care.

He has asked the heads of 400 private schools to agree to take part in a Department for Education and Skills' working party looking at the feasibility of this project. Even somebody who is totally objective about this project would have to ask some hard questions. How will the taxpayer view sending difficult and disruptive pupils to the comparative opulence of, say, Benenden or Radley, or even a school modelled on these excellent schools and even, possibly, administered by them? Would that not look like a reward for anti-social behaviour?

What will the parents who currently pay fees think about disruptive pupils sitting in their classrooms for free? Who is to say it will work?

And perhaps most importantly, who will decide whether it is disruptive or disadvantaged children who will be allowed to join the scheme? Financially it would be easy to justify. Sending a child to a boarding school such as Haileybury costs in the region of pound;25,000 a year, roughly half of what some fostering agencies charge and, on average, a quarter of the cost of residential care in children's homes. Socially, there is no doubt that some difficult children would benefit from boarding school: they would be immediately removed from a life which has, to varying degrees, provided them with the reasons and conditions to misbehave. They would be kept very busy for seven days a week, and be under the close eye of a housemaster or housemistress. But while there are potential benefits, there remains the crucial question of who qualifies: the disruptive or the disadvantaged?

Few independent schools would complain about accepting bright, motivated, disadvantaged children, but, politically at least, it would be extremely difficult for a Labour government to get this through parliament with their now reduced majority. If it is the disruptive, it seems highly unlikely that the successful, over-subscribed schools are going to be falling over themselves to sign up. However, there are plenty of boarding schools out there that are increasingly filling up their dormitories with pupils from overseas, as well as less-able pupils. It is to these small, financially fragile institutions - rather than the Harrows and Rugbys - that these seemingly unwanted modern Eliza Doolittles would surely go. They may thrive in boarding, as many do, but what if, like Ryan Bell - the boy from a south London council estate who spent a year at a public school as part of a social experiment for Channel 4's Second Chance - they fail? What happens to them then? Who picks up the pieces and repairs the damage, both to the pupil and the school itself?

I can't help thinking that it would take a very brave head to commit to such a scheme. But another thought occurs to me: could this urge to make independent schools less exclusive be a clever ploy to make schools like mine less attractive to the affluent middle class? Could it all be part of Labour's class war against "the toffs"?

For those who care for vulnerable children we should all hope ministers do not seek to make political capital out of such a worthwhile project.

David James is head of English at Haileybury, Hertfordshire

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