As my train started to pull out of the small station in my village the other day, the elderly lady sitting next to me glanced at the obscure academic-looking book on my lap, and asked: “What do you do?”
I explained that I was an assistant housemistress at a local independent boarding school. Then the conversation quickly shifted to the Labour Party’s recent bid to tackle the “problem” of independent schools in this country.
After airing her thoughts on the advantages that boarding schools give to children of all backgrounds – with concern in her eyes – her opinion was summed up in these words: “Oh, but they just don’t know.”
It is with this beginning that I want to discuss orphaned children in UK boarding schools.
How private schools help orphans
While the Department for Education does not gather statistics on the number of orphaned children who are enrolled in UK boarding schools, the number of looked-after children in England during 2019 was a staggering 106,550.
From this number, the largest portion of looked-after children are placed into adoption or foster-care scenarios: a lesser number are placed into other settings, including residential schools.
When the Labour shadow education secretary Angela Rayner stated, on behalf of her party, that “children’s life chances should not depend on parental wealth”, she failed to address the life chances of those children who, in fact, have no parental wealth. They are given the opportunity to attend a boarding school, their place subsidised by looked-after children’s funding, school-supported bursaries and children’s charities.
In light of the Labour Party’s statements regarding the abolition of independent schools, I think it is necessary to discuss the number of UK children who would be without a home if this were to happen.
Boarding schools: more than a bed and a school
While working as an assistant housemistress in two boarding schools, I have encountered a number of orphaned students. On the outside, these children appear no different from their fellow students – often, their friends and teachers do not know that they are orphans.
It is only at times like Christmas and holidays, when they are picked up by a guardian-company or distant relative, that we are reminded that they are orphans.
Boarding schools are not simply a bed and school for children, and especially orphaned children. Rather, they provide children with a safe, structured, and nurturing environment. While boarding school education is not suitable for every type of child, these schools are often suitable for orphans.
Boarding schools provide children with a stable and routine-driven learning space. For orphans, this means that, during the school term, they are not distracted by the challenges that come with transferring in and out of foster homes.
The daily schedule is strict and busy – often students only have a couple of hours of free time – and so orphans, therefore, have less time to think about the tragedy that often surrounds their personal familial circumstances.
All children in boarding schools are in the same situation – they are away from home – and so orphans feel less isolated. The cloud of exclusiveness that often characterises the independent-school sector becomes a form of inclusiveness for these children.
Because they are all in the same situation, spending all of their time together, children in boarding schools make very strong friendships with each other. This means that orphans quickly develop a strong support network, which helps to buffer the grief and mental illnesses that sometimes accompany orphanhood.
The best they can be
Children in boarding schools are taken care of by excellent, trained boarding-school staff. These staff – housemistresses, housemasters, tutors – have often been through boarding school themselves, and are specially trained to look after children away from home.
Staff are often not told of a child’s precise familial circumstances, and this helps to alleviate any unconscious bias that may arise in interactions with an orphaned child.
Boarding schools enable children to achieve all that they are capable of achieving, by providing them with an eclectic array of opportunities. Generally, independent schools are equipped with state-of-the-art humanities, science, and sports facilities, as well as leadership programmes (like the prefect system), which encourages children to become the best that they can be.
By offering orphans an environment that cultivates success, boarding schools are able to provide these disadvantaged children with a strong start as they emerge into adult life.
So, in addition to providing a bed and an education to orphaned children, boarding schools nurture a safe, home-like and inspirational environment.
The removal of boarding schools would not simply mean the loss of a stable home for this disadvantaged group. In addition, it would mean the loss of a supportive, structured and inspirational network, which cares deeply for these students’ wellbeing and future in the world.
Traditional independent schools often cloak themselves with a mist of secrecy. But one of their best-kept secrets is the wealth of opportunity that they provide for orphans who – through no fault of their own – find themselves in disadvantaged circumstances.
Madeleine Killacky is assistant housemistress at a boarding school in Shropshire