In recessionary times, anyone contemplating independent education for their offspring must take pause for thought before they embark on the enterprise. How much? For how long? And how much is that in total? After tax? And if they are thinking about a child becoming a boarder, it’s probably the same questions, but with a higher pitch at the end of the sentence, demanding, in print, at least two question marks and italics – How much?? Answer: a boarding fee now will cost more than the average national wage.
Is it worth it? A good education is always worth it. Getting the right ‘good education’ for each individual child is the hard bit – broad, balanced, thorough, inspiring, tailored eventually to the interests and aspirations and talents of each child to enable them to go on to lead productive, well-enough-remunerated lives. Not a tall order at all.
Research indicates that even people who cannot afford an independent education would like it if they could. They believe the smaller classes, more subject-expert staff, the longer days, the broader curriculum, the extra-curricular activities (Eton produces more than 25 student plays a year, when many schools think one big production a year is hard work) – all these things add up to a better education than is generally available in the local state school.
You only have to look at the academic results, and the preponderance of independently educated people in the best universities and in the highest ranks of the most esteemed professions, to believe that it’s worth it. Indeed, it’s so worth it, government is looking to the independent sector to help them raise the game in state schools.
The trouble is the rise in independent school fees, and in boarding most of all, has transformed the customer. I am sure I would enjoy the ride in a Rolls Royce, it would probably be money well spent, but ‘worth it’ becomes immaterial if the price is simply too high.
My husband and I, who sent four children to independent senior schools, two of them as boarders, were not then – nor are we now – Rolls Royce riders. But it’s quite possible that most parents now able to afford the kind of education which I thought was expensive and which is now eye-wateringly so actually are Rolls Royce people. And if they are, they will come to the school doors with very different expectations of the head and the school than was the case back in the day.
We were of the generation of parents who virtually did what the head asked of us, or told us, or allowed us. Viz. when I asked if our son entering senior school as a boarder could come home for a weekend every two weeks, the head was horrified – “I do not want boys in class on Monday morning unable to think straight because they have been having a high old time at home all weekend! Certainly not!” I capitulated. I do not recall muttering, “Yes sir,” but I suspect I came pretty close.
If I am sure of anything these days, it is that those days are gone. A headteacher talking to a parent like that now, would not see her, or her beloved, valuable child, for dust. The prices are now so high that the parents who can afford them have turned into extremely discerning customers: upset them at your peril. If I was grateful to be allowed to approach, they believe the customer is king.
So what changed? The world, my friend, the world. Raise the fees, reduce the market, and a tender market will need more nurturing. Today’s parents do not kowtow to people who might once have said, “We are the professionals, leave it to us.” A high-handed stance is likely to be greeted with a baffled, “Excuse me? I am the customer – yes? I am paying the bill – yes? Then I expect service, the very best service, look at the prices!”
While headteachers may have woken up to the new world, conjuring appropriate service from the whole school is not necessarily easy. Making sure the message of doing the job better than ever before gets through to the frontline troops can be a real challenge.
Working out who is on the frontline, of course, is not always easy. These days, with prospective parents and pupils considering many schools before making their decisions, particularly for boarding, the front line is remote: the website. Slow, clunky, out of date, neglected, tired – pupil and parent are gone in 60 seconds.
How often have I searched a website and not been able to find the head’s name? Or the school phone number? Or a message from the head – and when I do, how often is it very, very long and considered to the point of boring, and not actually welcoming? And the news? How recent? I have even gone to websites where I know there has been a change of head, but it’s not on the website. Ah. Photographs of staff? Even the head? Not always. More particularly these days, film clips? Something of the life and vitality of a school? A peephole into what it’s really like? A daily shot of today’s lunch? How many children with phones that could take film every day – great lesson, great match, great production??? The question marks are me thinking, come on! So much more is possible – and it’s your front window, your chance to say, “Come on in, it’s really great here – look!”
Or listen. Start with a phone call. I’m the head who once walked into her school’s hectic morning break reception area, much milling at the desk, and heard the receptionist lift a shrill phone and bark “What!” Might that have been a prospective parent, considering sending a child to board at £X per year for, perhaps five years? Yes, it might.
At least it was a human voice. It is less common in independent schools, but even they now sometimes confront the casual caller – maybe with triplets aged 12, with a combined IQ of 500 and already Grade 8 in six instruments – with a recording which drones, “Thank you for calling Bloggs’ Academy. If you wish to report an absence…” You know the rest. Listening to it will steal three minutes of your life, and to prevent such loss you may decide to call a different school at once. Why start with absence? Are those calls so frequent they get priority? If so, what’s wrong with your school? Why don’t pupils just love to be there, come hell or high water?? I have even heard “Press six for lockers and pastoral care.” What? What?? Never mind the bizarre combination, what lunacy made you tell the world that the most important thing you do – look after the welfare of children – is way down there with the lockers? What madness is this?
So – an independent education, possibly with boarding, is it worth it? Yes. But don’t take it for granted: to make it so, you may have to work very hard indeed.
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association W: www.boarding.org.uk