Education: Policing those boarder disputes

Bullying, cold baths and other privations have no place in modern boarding schools when the inspector calls. By Diana Hinds
Leaning against their bunks, a group of 14-year-old boys at Shiplake College, near Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, are telling the chief inspector the best things about being a boarder.

"More social life, and you have friends around all the time," says one.

"More time to do your homework, more quiet," says another.

When the inspector asks what are the worst things, one boy volunteers that with five in a dormitory, the lack of privacy "can get a bit too much". The others nod. Lack of privacy in the showers is also an issue, it seems. (In a recent case, a cleaner at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Sussex was sacked after a video camera was discovered in a shower room ceiling.) At Shiplake, the junior showers contain eight shower heads, but have no cubicles or dividing curtains. Boys say they prefer to wait rather than take a shower with more than one or two others. The inspector takes a look, and recommends curtains.

Roger Morgan, chief inspector for Oxfordshire social services and the author of new national standards for boarding schools currently on trial around the country, makes inspecting into something of an art form. With his cue card in hand, listing main points to be checked, he looks under beds for saggy mattresses, counts lights and power points, and runs taps to check that the water is hot. He also - and here he is in his element - talks to the boys at every opportunity, subtly drawing them out on what their boarding life is really like, piecing together a jigsaw of how well the school is functioning.

He stops, for instance, in a corridor to chat to his two pupil guides about how the prefect system works and whether they think the punishments prefects dole out are generally fair.

Paul, 17, now a house prefect himself, says punishments were more severe when he started at the school at 13 - such as being woken at 6.30am by prefects and made to go for a cross-country run. Tom, 14, complains that the whole dormitory gets punished if anyone talks after lights out, for instance, by being made to go to bed early next day. Mr Morgan remarks this is fairly common practice in boarding schools, but makes a note to follow it up.

In making final recommendations, the inspector will refer closely to the standards, as well as to past surveys of school norms. Over several days, he will observe every aspect of the routine, from breakfast to bed time. If pupils reveal information which seriously concerns him, it will be pursued.

Before the Children Act of 1989, boarding school accommodation, staffing and practices had never been subject to inspection. A notorious case in 1988, however, at Crookham Court, a boys' boarding school in Berkshire, where the proprietor, head teacher and two members of staff were convicted of child abuse, had a strong influence on the Children Bill as it went through Parliament. The result was a new regime of boarding and welfare inspections by social services.

Over the past 10 years, local authorities have produced their own detailed inspection plans, based on government guidelines. Now, however, in a shake- up of inspection standards for all public institutions, the Government wants more detailed national standards to ensure consistency across the country. Mr Morgan says his national boarding standards, still in draft form, draw on best practice, and may mean individual authorities being tougher in some areas of inspection, and lighter in others.

Areas of emphasis in the national standards include more rigorous checking, through police and Department for Education and Employment records, of all members of staff in a boarding house (from cleaners, to house masters' wives); and more child protection procedures, so all staff know what to do if a child reports abuse.

In a recent social services inspection at Shiplake College, says Nick Bevan, the head teacher, a cleaner was asked if he had been briefed on the procedure if a boy reported abuse, and replied that he hadn't. But in general, the inspection was positive, Mr Bevan says, and the inspectors liked the boarding house staff and the way they sometimes modified punishments given by over-enthusiastic prefects.

Mr Bevan has been in boarding schools all his life, as pupil, then teacher and in his eight years as a house master was never once inspected. He now thinks inspections are "a very good thing", and says Shiplake has learned a lot from them.

"It is so easy to say Tom Brown's Schooldays about boarding schools," says Adrian Underwood, director of the Boarding Schools' Association, in summoning up images of blatant bullying.

"Boarding used to be an opaque world, a law unto itself. But it is a much more transparent, open environment now, with parents coming in every day to look round."

There is no doubt that boarding is also a much more comfortable world than in the past. Mr Bevan is remembered by pupils, he says, for being the head of house who persuaded the house master to abandon the practice of cold baths. But he thought nothing of being made, at 18, to sleep in a dormitory with 10 other boys, a deprivation of privacy few would now tolerate.

Today's parents expect far more in the way of home comforts for their children at boarding school, such as warmth, good beds and attractive decoration. They want easy communication with their children, by phone and, increasingly, by e-mail, and they like older children to have their own cooking and laundry facilities. When they visit, Mr Bevan says, they will often ask about the house master - Is he married? Is he resident? - and they have some concerns about pastoral care and supervision outside lessons.

Boarding schools are spending around pounds 50m a year to modernise. But boarding is still in decline: there are now only 72,000 boarders nationally compared with more than 100,000 in 1989. Mr Bevan says this is because boarding is perceived as an expensive option - "although as an 'all-in' education, I think it's very good value" - as well as an unfashionable one, with many more parents wanting their children at home.

But as the generation of parents in their 40s and 50s, with grim boarding school memories, are superseded by younger parents with more positive experiences, that climate could begin to change, says Mr Underwood.

And with parents increasingly torn between home and work, adds Mr Bevan, weekly boarding for their teenagers could be exactly what they are looking for.