Education Quandary

'Are state boarding schools the answer for deprived and troubled children? Wouldn't schools need special skills to handle them?'
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Hilary's advice

The Government is keen to revive the notion of state boarding school places, and at least one - Midlands technology college - is talking to ministers about adding onto their day-school campus a boarding house that will take in a mixture of pupils from troubled backgrounds, children whose parents are working abroad, and local pupils.

It could be a terrific idea for some of many thousands of children in this country who come from difficult circumstances. Modern boarding bears no relation to the nightmare dormitories of the past. The best boarding houses are warm and welcoming, and allow pupils to feel part of a community. There are thoughtful adults in loco parentis, and the security of structured days.

But any school that thinks it will be easy to bolt a boarding house onto their existing structure will need to think again. Successful boarding schools have often been at it for hundreds of years and have a whole-school atmosphere that reflects their boarding ethos. They often, for example, have Saturday morning lessons, and a sports programme that takes up much of the weekend, as well as experienced teachers who have made their careers in boarding schools.

A day school that wants to tack on a boarding house will need to think hard about how to integrate day and boarding pupils, how to keep pupils busy during the evening and at weekends, and how to attract staff who genuinely like caring for young people, however difficult, and are able to manage the transition between classroom and boarding house.

Readers' advice

My children's Christian prep school prided itself in being able to help children from troubled backgrounds. I would say that any school that does this needs a deep commitment to doing it, and also staff who can handle the kind of situations that arise. It also needs to be sure that it is not taking on too many such children. They can quickly disrupt the atmosphere, and then parents get upset. I know this for a fact, because it happened in my middle daughter's final year, and the school had to ask one girl to leave.

Rosy Shawcross, Hereford

Boarding schools might be good for children who would otherwise be in care, but where are they supposed to go in the holidays? If the children feel happy and secure at school, it will make the holidays extra bleak for them, especially if they are living in term-time alongside other children who go home to loving homes.

Maureen Tynsdale, Surrey

Adding a boarding house onto a day school requires different skills from the ones you are likely to have in school already. Any day school should pick the brains of people in other boarding schools before even thinking of doing anything. A half-cocked boarding house could be the worst of all worlds for children who need proper care and structure.

Glyn Thompson, Bristol

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

I keep reading about the international GCSE exam, and how more and more independent schools are doing it, and I wonder if my children are missing out. If it is so great, why don't state schools want to take it up, too? Do pupils who do it have an advantage when it comes to jobs and universities?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 4 December to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser.