Why it’s time for a ‘culture shift’ in boarding schools

6th May 2016 at 00:00
Sector risks self-destruction over fees and does not focus enough on pupil wellbeing, warns ex-Eton head

The former head of Eton has warned boarding schools that they need to improve their approach to child protection and that they risk self-destruction because fees have spiralled “out of reach”.

Current fees were excluding those families on modest incomes and risked “destroying the very service that we value and cherish the most”, Tony Little told the Boarding Schools’ Association’s (BSA) annual conference in Manchester this week.

“Fees as we know have risen enormously over the past 30 years and will have been a barrier for many families who would like to consider boarding as an option for their children…While we can celebrate our good value as a sector, independent schools cannot be blind to the plain and simple truth that for so many our fees are simply beyond reach.

“And it does not take too much imagination to work out that unless there is some sort of positive action to address this – to widen the boarding opportunity not just for vulnerable children but to all – then we will be in danger of destroying the very service that we value and cherish the most.”

There was also a need for a culture shift in schools, he said, away from a focus on the legal details of safeguarding .

Good safeguarding and child protection cannot be “measured by the interval between the last inspection report and the next court case”, Mr Little, who is honorary president of the BSA, said. His speech came in the wake of a string of high-profile historic sex abuse cases in recent years, which has tarnished the image of the boarding sector.

“If we are really to build bridges and change lives we have to shift from a world of listening to lawyers and checking the small print of our insurance policies, and actually change the culture of what we do”, he added.

Openness and trust

After his speech, Mr Little, who was head master of Eton from 2002 to 2015, told TES: “I visit schools where it’s evident that the management of the schools is so exercised by getting the legal details right.

“The impression I get is that the school is being run for the ease of adults, not for the benefit of children. It’s fundamentally wrong. I can understand why that happens, but we have to change it.”

“The pendulum inevitably swings. Lots of schools are becoming obsessed by the small-print, and concerned with safeguarding from a legalistic point of view.

“Any school has to be aware of a dark culture where things are unspoken and go underground. We need the opposite of that: finding a way where there’s openness and trust. You can’t do that only by looking at the small print of legislation.”

Mr Little suggested that some children were missing out on school outings and other experiences because teachers were overly worried about the legal fall-out. “We need a shift in culture, really,” he said.

“It falls on the heads and senior leaders. They should positively encourage all the things that are good for children, without a hint of, ‘Oh, it’ll be easier if we don’t take children to this event’. It’s the tone of the culture in the school.”

The BSA conference focused on how boarding could solve problems for some of the country’s most vulnerable children.

The Springboard Bursary Foundation, which provides bursaries for disadvantaged children, has placed 200 pupils in boarding schools over four years – a figure that the organisation plans to double next year.

Buttle UK, which also distributes funds for boarding school places for vulnerable children, recently launched a three-year research study looking at the impact that boarding schools have on the lives of these children.

In December, schools minister Lord Nash wrote to directors of children’s services, asking them to assess to what extent opportunities such as these were taken up in their local authorities. A well-chosen boarding school could “transform” the life chances of a vulnerable, disadvantaged young person, he wrote.

Boarding ‘harms pupils’

Even those who are not in favour of boarding schools acknowledge that this can be the case. Thurstine Basset, co-author of Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege, a new guide for therapists working with people whom they refer to as “boarding school survivors”, said: “Maybe, if you come from a more dysfunctional family, boarding school is a better place to be. But for the vast majority of pupils, who come from loving, caring families, why would you want to spend three-quarters of your time in an institution, rather than at home?”

The book claims that outwardly happy boarding pupils are putting up a façade to hide an “enormous” amount of anxiety, and that even those students who do receive good pastoral support can be damaged by going to school away from their families. Psychotherapist Nick Duffell, a former boarding school teacher and the other co-author of the book, is now calling for boarding to be banned for pupils under 16.

However, Robin Fletcher, chief executive of the BSA, insisted that the boarding school pupils he meets are not hiding any traumas.

“Boarding isn’t right for everybody. Some children will thrive and flourish in boarding, and I don’t think it makes any difference what age that person is. I have met younger boarders and asked if they’re enjoying it. Their answer is: ‘I’m loving it.’”


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