If there has been one revolution in boarding schools in recent years, it is their transformation from closed worlds, into which small children disappeared and from which polished young adults emerged, into wide open, transparent, accessible, attractive places virtually visible and on parade 24/7. And about time too.
‘Virtually’ is almost a key word, because of course almost all pupils will have their phone about their person, images of their lives in school can be snapped almost at any time, and the world can see in an instant where they are, what they are doing, even how much they are eating – “Look, Mum, this is the stack of pancakes I had this morning!”
I do know in reality such a message would be chopped down into today’s abbreviations, but you get the point. For boarding schools in particular, there really is no hiding place for tat or grot.
There is no doubt that we have taken information-sharing to our hearts. Who books a holiday without checking out TripAdvisor or a comparable website? “Tell me all about it!” we demand before we commit to anything or anywhere new. Time was when parents might enquire about a school and be sent the prospectus, which was their sole guide to a school until they walked through the gates. They would talk to the head, they would tour the school – variously accompanied by the head himself, the deputy, a prefect, a pupil, the professional marketing director, all with a different slant on the school. A peep into the dining room, one boarding house, but not all because there would not be time – then go home and make your decision. Simples.
Now if a school name comes up – straight to the website, which can have you decide in an instant, “Yes!” or “OMG – absolutely no.”
There is obviously more to be written about the whole website business, but for the moment what interests me is the physical environment of schools and how they have changed immeasurably for the better – and the information-sharing is one of the reasons why. If boarding schools used to be closed worlds, in a way so was any school – we knew nothing about any other school even in the next town, let alone a hundred miles away.
It is good to see how government has decided that if they cannot immediately and at a stroke raise teaching and learning standards, they can at least improve the environment in which teaching and learning happens. By whatever means, in recent years a fortune has been spent on building for schools. They rise like glossy palaces, open and airy and geared for group learning and computers. To attend such a school feels like a privilege. It therefore follows that behaviour will immediately improve and teaching will become outstanding and pupils will achieve better results than were possible in the old, shambolic and decrepit building. We hope.
I attended a Victorian three-room village primary school in North Wales, semi-detached (for reasons I know not) to a nice house in which the headmaster and his wife lived. The wife was prone to migraines. I know because one of my enduring memories of my time there was the headmaster regularly opening one of the high windows in the schoolroom to bellow at everyone in the playground, “Be quiet, Mrs Pierce has a headache!”
High windows. For the children, a closed world, with a coal-burning stove upon which spit would bounce and against the hot rails of which you could be surreptitiously pushed if Mr Pierce were to turn his back. Many of my friends lived in the village, a five-minute walk from school. For me, it was a mile walk, and no car, and no bus.
I’m not trying to make Monty Python-esque points about the old days, but looking back I am aware of how little we knew about anywhere else. We lived in the village. There was a school. My own children, a generation later, attended a comparable village school – my elder daughter, now with a son in a 30-strong primary class in a two-form-entry town school, recalls that when she was 10, her whole year group numbered seven. But things were already changing: the county closed five similar primary schools in a string of villages and built a state-of-the-art large primary school for which 80 percent of the pupils had to travel on a school bus. At four. New-build or not, I did not consider this progress.
Perhaps all comparisons are odious. But the new freedom of information and the quick-fire analysis of our world which is now possible on phones and computers mean our choices can be very well informed. Not only have schools opened up, they are now in very open competition with each other.
While every school will want a great learning environment – and, today, super facilities for sport and drama and art – boarding schools also have to offer superlative living space. They’re not just schools, they are places to live for ten weeks at a time, sometimes when your own home is 3,000 miles away. They had better be good.
The National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools and the inspection process which ensures that schools meet their requirements have been powerful forces for good in the boarding world. Originally 52 standards, breaking down into 294 bullet-point statements for absolute clarity and lest there be any confusion, the standards now number just 20, but they are stringent, and in any case, every boarding school will be trying to exceed them. ‘Minimum’ is not a good sales pitch – of course they want to do better than that and most will.
I was a head when the original standards arrived and vividly remember wrestling with the bursar for the money to refurbish bathrooms.
“They are fine!” said he.
“No, they are not,” said I, waving the standards, which required greater privacy than a flimsy shower curtain for each cubicle.
So, budget-breaking or not, listed building regulations or not, proper cubicles with lockable front doors and space within to change were created in my school, and probably in similar boarding schools up and down the country, as they were gently but firmly nudged into the twenty-first century.
And the food! Oh, the food. So many influences for change here, apart from comparisons with other schools: TV chefs and amateur cookery programmes – how many schools now run their own versions of ‘MasterChef’ or ‘Bake Off’? Inter-house competitions in the kitchens as well as on stage or clutching musical instruments. And more international students demanding greater variety and at least a nod to their own countries’ specialities. Gone are the days of a head cook, confronted with a request that girls from Hong Kong would like more rice please, folding his arms across his chest and declaring: “They have come to an English school for an English education, and they will eat potatoes because that’s what English people eat!” Today, chefs will celebrate national days as often as possible for the buzz, the challenge and the possibility of great promotional photographs.
‘Chefs’. Not head cooks. Says it all, really, doesn’t it?
Hilary Moriarty is an education consultant, following six years of headship and eight years as National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association