Lord Nash, Schools Minister, addresses the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA) symposium.
Thanks, Roy (Page, State Boarding Schools’ Association Chairman and Headmaster, Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe). It’s a great pleasure to be here and to see the growing appetite and recognition for state boarding that has brought us all here today.
Like you, I’m very keen to capitalise on this interest, so that many more children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can benefit from state boarding and the unique opportunities it offers.
As you may know, my department has been exploring how we can take this forward with, among others, the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA), which has responded in characteristically positive and constructive style. This can be seen in the support that the association has given to academies with new boarding provision, which I know has been greatly appreciated.
I also had a very useful meeting with Roy, Hilary (Moriarty, National Director, Boarding Schools’ Association) and Melvyn (Roffe, Principal, Wymondham College). What came across most strongly from this meeting, and from the work underway in my department, is that while there’s discussion to be had about how we open up state boarding to more children, there’s little question as to why it’s the right thing to do.
Benefits of boarding
State boarding schools are a key part of the school system and, as such, have an important role to play in improving the prospects of all children, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.
As a south London boy who had no thoughts of boarding until my mother died and I was sent away to a boarding school where I was certainly the only child who had not previously boarded and one of the very few not to have failed to get into Eton, I was regarded as a right pleb - but I fairly quickly learnt to appreciate the experience and I know how much good it did me and how much more trouble I would have probably got into had I gone to school at home.
So my personal experience leads me to be highly supportive of the boarding experience and all the evidence is that it can be very transformative for the right children.
We are keen to do what we can to help the state boarding sector but - and I have to say this - with the context that the cupboard left to this government is decidedly bare of funds.
Being a child growing up in an inner city today can be a pretty tough life with all the problems of gangs and the violence and crime that can bring and with so many of our children having absent fathers. Indeed for some it can be a pretty frightening life - no wonder so many of them look haunted.
Boarding is clearly, not right for every child, vulnerable or otherwise. But where a state boarding school can meet a vulnerable child’s needs by providing stability, strong pastoral care and an environment rich in academic and extra-curricular opportunities, the results can be life-changing.
Last year, 78% of year 11 boarders supported by the charity Buttle UK got 5 good GCSEs - almost as high as the national average and 10% higher than pupils on free school meals, who come from similar backgrounds to their own. This is a significant achievement given that quite a few of these assisted boarders would, otherwise, have been expected to score well below average.
Many of us have, of course, seen the remarkable stories behind the statistics with our own eyes.
There’s the young woman who had been in care since her early teens, but who flourished with the support and structure she got as a day boarder at Wymondham and won a place at Cambridge.
There’s also the pupil at Wellington Academy, who has a parent with alcohol problems, but whose grades and attendance improved after the local authority funded a boarding place.
And there’s, of course, Andrew Adonis, a truly great man, who I am delighted will be here today and who is a living testament to the transformative power of boarding. The local authority that had the wisdom to fund his boarding place, all those years ago, couldn’t have known where it would take him.
As many of you may know, it’s thanks to Andrew that I became a sponsor of Pimlico Academy, where I can think of at least 40 pupils at any one time who might benefit from boarding - something I plan to do something about when I finish this job. I now find myself surprisingly following in Andrew’s footsteps at the department - and I couldn’t have chosen a harder act to follow! Despite their obvious advantages for children from more humble backgrounds, boarding schools are still largely associated with privilege and, all too often, barred to those who might benefit the most from them.
Support for boarding
I’m keen to work with you to change this.
Many new and prospective boarding providers and new initiatives, like The Assisted Boarding Network and The Springboard Bursary, have a strong focus on expanding boarding opportunities for poorer children.
We can see this in the good take-up of places by pupils who may not have traditionally boarded at the first 3 academies to offer new boarding provision; Wellington, The Priory and at Harefield, where sponsor David Meller is doing sterling work and himself funding assisted boarding.
And there’s Durand’s bold and ambitious bid to give inner city youngsters a free boarding education and now Eton’s plan’s with Holyport College - so we have a market that is becoming gratifyingly diverse, overturning preconceptions about boarding and dismantling the Berlin wall between the state and private sectors at long last, and I’m delighted to see the independent sector engaging with the state sector on many fronts.
For my own part, I have been delighted to involved over many years with the Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, which has sent a number of young, black boys to some of our most prestigious public schools. Seven students have gone to Rugby, 1 to Eton, another is at Wellington and others are due to follow them.
Local authority role
It’s difficult to overstate what these kinds of opportunities mean to these young men and their families - opportunities that should, hopefully, become more widely available as local authorities begin to take boarding more seriously as a viable option for disadvantaged children in their care.
Though this is still far from the norm, there are some notably engaged local authorities such as Dudley, where the Virtual School Head convinced senior colleagues to fund boarding provision by arguing it would actually save £1.6 million.
In addition, Buttle UK has reported that more local authorities than ever are engaging with them on boarding, having received inquiries from 94 councils since they launched the Assisted Boarding Network with the Royal National Children’s Foundation last June.
Buttle and the foundation are also undertaking a project to more proactively target pupils suitable for boarding, which is showing real promise, with 30 to 40 local authorities registering an interest.
I want to encourage this interest, get local authorities working much more closely with the boarding sector to find suitable placements for disadvantaged children and work with you to show local authorities case studies and arguments as to why boarding can be more cost efficient.
Of course none of us see state boarding schools as substitutes for children’s homes. You wouldn’t want a school full of children in care anymore than you’d want a school full of the children of billionaires.
We want a mixed economy that works well for all concerned. Within this, there’s room for more children from challenging backgrounds who often seize boarding opportunities with great enthusiasm, making a terrific contribution to the schools they attend.
It’s very much about matching the right child with the right school, making sure they can bring out the best in each other, which is why it’s so essential that provision meets demand. This is our guiding principle as we consider how to address the funding concerns that I know many of you have.
As I say we live in times of austerity and capital funding is very tight, but my department is keen to support innovative approaches that boost children’s outcomes, and my department is preparing a pack of guidance for schools interested in expanding or creating boarding provision. We would encourage schools and education leaders with something imaginative to offer, especially as regards new academy and free school projects, to get in touch. So, for example, where schools identify a need for new provision, they could consider submitting a free school proposal.
Applications will need to demonstrate demand from children currently in the state system and how they will ensure that the children they want to benefit, whether they’re under-privileged or otherwise, actually do benefit.
State boarding schools can also take advantage of the freedoms which academy status offers, either through the convertor or sponsor route including the use of GAG surpluses.
Many state boarding schools in England have already done this meaning, for example, that they can access money, previously held by the local authority, for building repairs.
I’m also pleased to see that some existing academy chains are being really proactive about developing boarding opportunities. Skegness Grammar School, for example, joined the David Ross Education Trust after becoming an academy and is now working with the trust to open up boarding to a wider intake, including to pupils at other academies. And I hope that the results of the Property Data Survey will result in boarding schools which need urgent maintenance using it.
Boarding is, undoubtedly, one of the biggest success stories of our education system. But while the likes of Eton are internationally renowned, state boarding schools are, as many put it, ‘Education’s best kept secret’.
Well, I’m afraid that we’re going to have to the let the cat out of the bag. The unique education you offer is too valuable to remain unsung and out of reach. Especially for disadvantaged children who can be as good for your schools as you are for them.
Because this desire to extend boarding opportunities - a desire that I know we all share - couldn’t come at a more critical time. More than ever, in an increasingly competitive world, our future rests in the hands of our young people - and in the education they receive.
We all have a role to play in ensuring that this is the very best it can be, so that every child, regardless of background, has the chance to succeed.