Now boarding …

Robin Fletcher reflects on his first few months as the new national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association

It didn’t start well.

Arriving two hours early by mistake for your first school visit is one thing, but then to drop your visitor pass down the loo is not a good way to make a good impression. Throw in the fact that you’ve only been in the job three weeks, and you’ve never worked with boarding schools before, and you have the picture.

Such is my lot as the new national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, a job which means you’re the voice, face and point man for pretty much anything to do with boarding in the UK. Having started in September, after 30 years in media and communications, the new role has been interesting to say the least. And to counterbalance the parts that make your head hurt, there’s been some fun along the way too.

To be honest, I expected a tumbleweed moment when I sent my first email to heads offering to visit their schools. After all, I’m not a prospective customer with two school-age kids in tow needing to be courted as they choose where to send their precious charges. But a response that saw more than 50 invitations roll in by reply was a positive sign. Even if it does mean putting aside two days a week to jump in cars and taxis and climb aboard trains and tubes. There have been no planes, helicopters, boats or horses yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

In my first nine weeks I’ve managed 15 school visits, each as fascinating and varied as the other. I have met dozens of teachers, matrons, house parents, caretakers and children, been reminded that schools are really run by PAs (however much heads might think otherwise), seen inside about 100 dormitories and tasted a wide range of surprisingly edible school food.

I have seen schools with rolling acres, gleaming sports centres, gothic Victorian sleeping quarters, Palladian mansions, gilded chapels, lakes and quite a few sheep. I’ve interrupted lessons in science, art, business studies, drama, languages and dance, and sat in on a senior boarding planning meeting. I have been blinded by sunshine in deepest mid-Wales and added tide marks to my best brogues during lashing rain in north Norfolk.

All this has been instructive and stimulating. But nowhere near as engaging as meeting the real customers, those who study there each day and lay their heads to sleep there each night.

Now as I’m paid to say that all things boarding are great, I’m bound to write that my conversations with pupils have been the standout highlight of my experiences so far. It’s true though, because however much heads might prime (bribe?) their brightest and best to make a good impression, students remain an honest and open bunch when you get them in conversation.

Take the tall blond sixth former from a farming family who freely admitted that he missed his friends when he started to board. Stepping away from the pigs and sheep into a structured world of study, rugby and a myriad other things, however, has broadened his horizons. No, that doesn’t mean he’s about the turn his back on all that’s gone before and let the family business die. But he will go to agricultural college to learn some modern farming methods before rejoining the fold. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he comes back from his first term at uni and starts giving his old man lessons on animal husbandry!

Another young head of boarding showed me the recording studio in his room where he relaxes by practising the gospel raps he delivers at the local church near his school. Then there was the young Spanish boy who admitted to being homesick in his first few weeks, but then ran off to join his friends without even remembering to say goodbye to mum when she dropped him off at the start of second term.

Top highlight though was the gaggle of year-five girls who, with babble and bubble, paused en masse to tell me where they were off to in their smart house gym kits. The words tumbled out, all at once, with the untrained enthusiasm of a litter of labradors – to the extent that one of the girls whispered gently to one of her friends to calm down.

A life on the road only visiting my 450 members in the UK and Northern Ireland would be lovely, if perhaps a little exhausting. But sadly the real work doesn’t stop just because I’m on a schools’ road trip. Two or three days at our office in the heart of London every week remind me of some of the many other facets to the job – and here’s where the variety really comes in.

On the recruitment side, I’ve dealt with emails or calls from parents in Africa, France, Switzerland, Canada, China and even Mexico looking for the right boarding school for their children. Of course we don’t recommend one school over another (that would be business suicide), but we can point people in the right direction, here and there.

Then there are the conversations with the media which, as a former journalist and newspaper editor, I should find a walk in the park. Some of which are of course – like when I sat on a tree stump in St James’s Park being interviewed by ZDF, the German BBC equivalent, for a Newsnight-style slot on British boarding. Being a true professional I was word perfect in front of camera! But no amount of fluency can shut out the noise of royal pelicans, 747s roaring overhead or Big Ben bonging loudly in the background.

I think we did about four takes before the cameraman (an old Etonian) was content, much to the amusement and bemusement of the joggers, pigeon feeders, lunchers and Japanese tourists who must have wondered, fleetingly, whether I was someone they should know.

Aside from trying to persuade journalists to put things in (or keep things out of) the media, the main office responsibility has centred upon giving advice to schools in moments of crisis. What to do, for instance, when a senior boy with an infectious illness summons his dad from abroad at a moment’s notice? Or how late on a Saturday afternoon students can ask permission to stay overnight at a friend’s parents without being told they should have got their request in earlier? Or how to make sure the welfare of a budding tennis star can be properly supervised when she attends evening lessons at a professional academy away from her school. All small commas in the great boarding school book, perhaps, but illustrative of the sort of things those running them may be asked any day of the week.

And alongside these brainteasers are the ‘official’ things like responding to the Department of Education on admissions codes and new national minimum standards for boarding, or attending a national, multi-agency working group trying to increase the number of vulnerable children getting the opportunity to board.

As the new captain at the helm of the good ship boarding, it’s still early days in my personal voyage. There will of course be some rough seas to cross and the odd rock or two to navigate along the way, but based on my first couple of months I’ve no doubt the journey will be a great adventure.

For more on the Boarding Orchard, click here

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