I should have posted these clippings sooner. I came out strongly in the press against the sorts of myths (inc soup-eating) being sold to parents about how to survive in a UK independent school.
I recently read a piece in The Guardian about the introduction of financial education in our schools from next September, intended to teach children to “solve money related maths problems and learn about public finances, pensions and how to budget”. Worthwhile behaviour this of course is, and the priority given to such lessons is a growing trend in today’s schools. I think it reflects the role that the curriculum plays in the mind of today’s activist. Faced with the crisis of obesity, or waste, or the role of women, the activist suggests that we teach children how to eat their greens, use fewer plastic bags, dismantle the patriarchy and so on.
Such suggestions are benignly given, seem sensible and few would question the problems they seek to solve. But do such lessons achieved the desired effect? I think they are often have three unintended consequences.
Firstly, such lessons take time away from a school’s core purpose, which is the transmission of knowledge. You’ll notice that most of these lessons are aimed at primary school children who have not yet mastered the foundations of arithmetic, reading, writing, grammar, history, geography, science etc. Lessons instructing children in particular attitudes or behaviours were traditionally a responsibility of the home because it was felt that schools did not have enough time to combine ethical lessons with traditional subject lessons. Here is an example of a lesson on water health and wellbeing as part of the Guardian’s ‘Live Better Challenge’:
“[F]ive nine- and 10-year-old boys fan out next to each other in the grass under a big, leafy tree. Another boy tries to lie beside them. “Get up, we can’t have six fingers. Go and be soap!” bawls part of the “hand”. The unwanted finger reluctantly hauls himself to his feet and joins the larger group of pupils standing over the outspread hand. Grinning at the sheer daftness of it, they all start to bob up and down in unison, making splurting noises as the “fingers” wriggle energetically on the ground. “Miss, look, we’re a soap dispenser!” the pupils call out, verging on hysterics as they try to co-ordinate their “squirting” action.”
Every hour that a child spends in lessons like these is an hour he is not spending learning the essential prior subject knowledge needed to understand the world in any depth.
The second effect is an effect of the first. Without foundational subject knowledge, is it not probable that children will learn the behavioural commandment without understanding the knowledge underpinning it? The best time to consider conservation, nutrition, feminism and other prominent contemporary issues is once a child has a good working knowledge of natural biology, human biology, history, politics etc. Without knowledge, the commandment becomes something of an empty cartridge, unconnected to the wider fabric of human knowledge, less likely, perhaps, to lodge in the daily consciousness of the child.
Lastly, I have long been unconvinced that lessons in behaviour, which might otherwise be called lessons in character, are best taught explicitly in the classroom. The independent sector has always understood this truth, preferring to inculcate virtues through the careful cultivation of a child’s experiences outside the classroom, such as on the sports field or in the dining hall. If we are to teach character in the classroom, do the above examples – and many like it – really hold up to scrutiny as virtues? Are they not rather applications of older virtues, such as temperance (‘temperantia‘) or charity (‘caritas‘)? To misrepresent the application of a virtue for a virtue itself is to conspire in a moral muddying of the waters, particularly when we are talking about the character formation of young children.
To take one example, a recent government report found that the UK had slipped from sixth to ninth place in the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Index, that “a relative lack of ambition and positive attitudes may hold the UK back from realising its full entrepreneurial potential”, and that therefore the following lessons in primary schools were to be encouraged:
“Schoolchildren as young as five as will be taught how to set up their own businesses and make profits under plans to be unveiled this week…Those changes would mean that even the youngest children will be taught about the role and importance of business and the need to make a profit.”
The instruction “to make a profit” is not a morally defensible virtue in itself, but is rather an instance of the older virtue of diligence (‘industria’); just as the instruction to eat healthily is an example of temperance (‘temperantia’). Profit is a benign outcome only when tempered by other virtues and limited by other vices – above all greed. To set up profit itself as the virtue is, in C. S. Lewis words, a “rebellion of the branches against the tree.”
For more than a century, the multitude of different Purposes for education has disturbed and confused the means. “We [profess] to make ideal citizens, super tolerant neighbors, agents of world peace, and happy family folk, at once sexually adept and flawless drivers of cars,” Jacques Barzun wrote – in 1945. There is of course a place for character education, and the UK independent sector has been responsible for some of the best examples of it, but it would be wiser if it was both confined to a later stage in a child’s schooling and limited in scope to virtues and vices that have stood the test of time.
How far a motto describes the ethos of a school is a matter of some debate, but I rather liked the crest I saw on a recent visit to Shaw House School: “Towards Understanding.” Humble, unambiguous, purposeful, it perished with the school in 1985 when the buildings were discovered to be unsound.
The land was passed to Newbury County Council, which opened a state secondary on the same site in 1999. A new school, with a new motto:
Personal excellence and collective responsibility
I don’t want to labour the point, but I wonder if the waters have not been muddied when the schoolchild who went to school knowing that he was expected “to understand” now goes “to be personally excellent and collectively responsible”?
Last month, I wrote about about the affordability of independent schools. I am often asked how much private schools fees have risen in the past few decades. I have been looking for a good account for a while, and just recently came across this one in Dominic Carman’s Heads Up:
Comparing 1971 incomes with today as a multiple, the average income has increased by 13.5x – from £2000 to £27000. And prices over the same period? The cost of a First Class stamp has increased by 20x, a pint of beer by 29x, a loaf of bread by 11x, a pint of milk by 8.5x, a gallon of petrol by 20x, and an average house by 45x (source: ONS). And KES fees? In 1971, Claughton’s education cost £135 a year. Today’s annual fees come in at £10,926 – an increase of 81x – six times the increase in average earnings, and nearly twice the increase in house prices. A comparable surge has occurred throughout the independent sector, although day school fees have grown by more, proportionately, than boarding schools, where multiples of 50x are more typical over the same time period.
The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems…
Such is the trauma allegedly caused by attending a British boarding school… and certainly many of the families I have advised over the years (especially from around the Mediterranean!) seem to hold similar views. Even in the UK, many families feel that boarding is wacky or elitist or past its sell-by date.
Does boarding have a place in the modern world? You will find many articles that answer that question by drawing our attention to their ‘excellence’: their excellent academic results, their excellent sports facilities and so on. I agree with the label, but it does not by itself make a case for boarding. This mini-essay will ask: what is the actual purpose of boarding school? What makes it a distinctive choice for parents?
I believe the case for boarding rests on three distinct purposes.
Purpose 1) Boarding schools allow parents to entrust their children to those who have been raising children longer than they have.
The Latin origin of the word ‘educate’ is not, as some like to think, ‘educere’ (to lead/draw out) but ‘educare’: to rear. To choose boarding schooling is to delegate a large part of that rearing to experienced and, most importantly, dispassionate teachers. Teachers, male and female, are often called “Masters” in boarding schools because the title once described their minimum qualification (a Masters in Liberal Arts) but, in my mind, it is a title justified more by their mastery of rearing children. Good teachers have often instructed thousands of children. Sometimes this leads to complacency; more often, it leads to a disposition that does not treat every childish whim as an urgent need to be satisfied.
James Delingpole made this point well in an article explaining why he sent his children to boarding school:
Jim was bright but a slacker and could easily have gone off the rails. But he was steered through a difficult adolescence by an inspirational housemaster – Dennis Christley – who’d dealt with hundreds more teenage boys than I ever had and who, by administering just the right amount of carrot and stick at just the right moments, turned Jim into the charming, rounded, socially well‑adjusted delight he is today.
Historian and Anthropologist Professor Alan Macfarlane explains (in Letters to Lily) that, even before the popularity of boarding schools, the English believed in the importance of sending their children away from home at a young age:
Long ago, much to the surprise of Italian and French visitors, it was noticed that many of the English sent their children off very young (from as early as age seven) to be brought up in another household. If they were rich, they were pages or ladies-in-waiting; if poor, servants or apprentices. The English said they did this because unrelated strangers or friends could exercise good discipline in a way that parents found very difficult…Later this developed into the sort of education that I had: boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen with parents abroad in India whom I hardly saw. My grandparents, with whom I lived, disciplined me. Meanwhile my parents were like grandparents who could show an uncomplicated and high level of affection.
Is this purpose still necessary? Absolutely. Parents so often tell me how hard it is to be authority figures to their children, especially to teenagers. They describe the nightly battles with homework, the constant setting and re-adjusting of curfews. Parents in the West have probably never been on such intimate terms with their children; they have also probably never found it harder to exercise the discipline that is demanded by paternal and maternal love. Boarding schools help parents enlist the support of experts who, like them, have their child’s best long-term interests at heart but who, unlike them, have enough experience and emotional distance to know how those best interests are realized.
Purpose 2) Their immersive cultures are able to exert a more profound influence than day schools.
The reason I started this blog is because I believe boarding schools have the power to enact an educational philosophy of a comprehensiveness that is denied to day schools. Their longer school day and sometimes isolated campuses allow the fostering of a culture that can in some respects be insulated from ordinary affairs.
Under the wrong stewardship, boarding schools can foment the most hideous cultures. Witness the many British boarding schools in the nineties and their problems with bullying and drug addiction. By the same token, though, a well governed and purposeful boarding school culture can prove to be a powerful countervailing wind against the narcissistic and trivial preoccupations that are typical of teenage life.
What is this culture? As stated in the Purpose of my blog, despite the differences of individual schools, I believe that there is such a thing as the ideal British boarding school culture, and that it is something to which most boarding schools aspire. At its best, it is a culture that pays due consideration to the head, the heart and the body; that promotes the virtues of selflessness, teamwork and responsibility; and that stands as a bulwark against the appeals of materialism, cynicism and self-importance. This last word is the most crucial for me. By sublimating a pupil’s ego into a culture that is in every sense larger than itself, the best boarding schools can help to train pupils in that most rare virtue of humility.
At a boarding school, such a culture can be fostered from the moment a pupil wakes to the moment he or she goes to sleep. One Eton housemaster, now the Headmaster of a top day school, lamented the fact to me that his school “basically stopped educating at 5pm”. Etonians, he said, were being educated for at least another four hours per day.
Do any boarding schools really exert a more benign cultural influence than that provided at home? How can you tell? School websites and Open Days can reveal a school’s culture, if a somewhat manicured version, but perhaps the best way to see a culture in action is via the raft of fly-on-the-wall documentaries that are now available, most of them for free on YouTube:
- Eton: 1967; 1991; 1993; 2013
- Harrow: 2001; 2013
- Radley: 1979 – 2013
- Ampleforth: 1990s
- Britain’s Youngest Boarders
The changes through the years are fascinating (do Eton boys still sit around “declaiming” with their pals before class?) but more telling to my mind is the cultural thread that runs through them all over the past half-century. It’s a thread that runs back until at least Thomas Arnold’s day at Rugby. It is hard, though of course not impossible, to foster at home.
Purpose 3) They encourage independence.
This purpose is the most popular motivation cited by prospective parents and pupils. Of course, independence feeds out of the two purposes mentioned above: being away from one’s parents and being part of a strong and positive culture. It is so self-evident a merit of boarding school life that I shall limit myself to just a few observations.
Firstly, in what ways is the independence learned at boarding school different from that learned at day school? Boarding pupils are physically independent from their parents; if they have been put through a rigorous curriculum, let us hope that they will become independent in mind and thought too. I think the independence that boarding schools most aim for, though, is the independence from simple or immediate gratification. Boarding schools train habits very well. It is through undertaking – and surviving – unpleasant experiences that we grow up. From sharing a room with someone you don’t get on with to giving up one’s free evenings to direct the house play to any number of petty annoyances that fill a typical boarding day, boarding schools are ideally conceived to help children grow up being able to cope with, to transcend, the petty stresses and irritations of life.
Secondly, ‘independence’ is not meaningful without its corollary: ‘responsibility.’ Boarding schools return the trust that parents have placed in them…by placing in their children trust to behave responsibly. Sometimes this means trusting older children to run various parts of a school; at other times, it means trusting children simply to use their time wisely. Ex-boarding school pupils are often remarked upon for their confidence (John Locke said that boarding school boys were “bolder and better able to bustle and shift among boys”); it is a confidence derived from exercising responsibility from a reasonably young age. In recent times, there has been a bit of a tendency in boarding schools to micro-manage pupils’ “schedules” (a horrid word), which is a shame. If the school culture is right, schools should have enough confidence in pupils who have earned their independence to use it responsibly.
The result of these three primary purposes is an environment ripe for one of school’s secondary, but most profoundly rewarding, purposes: friendship. Boarding schools encourage that rare breed of lifelong friendship that can only be forged by the sharing of intense life-changing experience. As Hilary Moriarty, Director of Boarding Schools’ Association says, “ask any boarder what has been the best thing about boarding, and they are likely to say, ‘Being with friends,’ whatever their parents may think about academic excellence.”
The Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.boarding.org.uk/356/why-boarding-
My Further Reading list: http://www.willorrewing.com/reading-list
Boarding Schools’ Value-added: http://www.ukboardingschools.com/advice/value-added-learning/
State Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.sbsa.org.uk/
I was delighted to see that the magnificent Daisy Christodoulou, who featured quite a lot in my recent mini-essay on the curriculum, contributed an article to last week’s Spectator.
Her point that some of the trendiest education ideas are actually rather old hat was very well put:
“…one popular buzzword at the moment is ‘21st-century skills’, which sounds about as cutting-edge and modern as it gets…But a similar case was made at the start of the 20th century. In 1911, a prominent US educationalist criticised the way that schools taught pupils ‘a mass of knowledge that can have little application for the lives which most of them must inevitably lead’. Today we also hear a lot about the importance of ‘innovative’ project- and activity-based learning. But in England in the 1930s, the Hadow Report into primary education counselled that the curriculum should be thought of ‘in terms of activity and experience rather than knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored’. We’ve been trying these ideas, and failing with them, for a very long time.
I had never considered this:
…the reading researcher Keith Stanovich has argued that ‘education has suffered because its dominant model for adjudicating disputes is political rather than scientific’.
I also feel, and am heartened by, this:
“…my impression is that we are at a turning point in education. More and more teachers are realising the gap between the theory they are taught and their practical experience. More and more books are being published which explain the insights of cognitive science and the implications they have for classroom teachers. Instead of the warmed-through fads of the past century, I think the next few years will see evidence-based reforms that lead to genuine educational improvements.”
The whole article can be read here.
In a recent BBC Point of View broadcast, intellectual heavyweight Roger Scruton gave a fascinating history of education since the nineteenth century. It is well worth a read.
Having just written a mini-essay on the curriculum, I was especially struck by this thought:
The state inherited well-funded, long established and dedicated institutions and a tried and tested curriculum that large numbers of people knew how to teach.
Hear hear! He also shares my feelings about the importance of knowledge, encapsulated in this tidy phrase:
Education, we must remind ourselves, is not about social engineering, however laudable that goal might be. It is about passing knowledge from those who have it to those who need it.
If there is one concern that privately-educated friends of mine with new-born children all share it is that they will not be able to afford the education that they themselves were lucky to receive. I predict that this topic will come to dominate UK boarding schools over the next decades.
Andrew Adonis commented on the inflation in boarding school fees, and its cause, in a speech last year:
‘From the 1980s onward, there was fierce competition for theatres, swimming pools. Independent schools wanted to gold plate all their assets. There was a big reduction in class size… ten or not much more became an article of faith, half the level of the state system. And they pay their teachers more. Put all of that together and you have had private school fee inflation of two, three, four, five times the level of inflation at large.’
Will other schools follow Milton Abbey’s lead and cut their fees?
An interesting response from Scotland in the The Independent:
In her price on independent schools (25 February) Rosie Millard makes the all-too-common mistake of picking the biggest number she can find and crafting a lively narrative around it.
The majority of pupils who attend independent school, at least in Scotland, are day pupils who live locally. Annual fees, for those who do pay full fees, are well below £10,000 – not the £30K figure quoted, which is more than any full boarding experience in Scotland would cost.
On top of that, the charity law in Scotland requires means-tested financial assistance for pupils who wish to access the education of independent schools but require fee assistance. The sum of that assistance is well above £30m annually, with bursaries ranging up to 100 per cent.
All of which is why the landscape, seen from here, is a lot more diverse and welcoming than Rosie Millard sees.
John Edward, Director Scottish Council of Independent Schools, Edinburgh
In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.
I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.
Very Brief History
To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.
Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.
From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.
Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.
However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.
From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.
How does this affect boarding school parents?
Concerns for Parents
Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.
This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:
Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.
So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.
However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:
- An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
- For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.
Tips for Parents
How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?
Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:
- Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
- If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.
This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.
This sort of thing is increasingly prevalent in the independent sector:
Yesterday, it was announced that head teachers from 200 of the country’s leading independent schools will attend a conference next month to learn how to equip their pupils with emotional resilience, so that they can deal better with stress and failure.
As ever with curricula that promote skills over knowledge, it is hard to find fault with the skill itself. Who wouldn’t want their children or pupils to be emotionally resilient? It is the method by which these skills are ‘taught’ that is more suspect.
Pastoral care; competitive sports and examinations; the study of traditional subjects (especially the Humanities): all of these facets of school life, to name just a few, have been, in the hands of humane and experienced teachers, the seedbed of ’emotional resilience’ for many centuries. The only suggestions I could find in this article (“nurture a positive view of yourself”; “practice optimism”) seem at best banal. At worst, such suggested ‘interventions’ are an invasion of unnecessarily therapeutic language into an arena in which they may help to aggravate the very problem they purport to solve.