There may be many reasons to look askance at Britain’s independent boarding schools.
But the standard of the education that they provide is, by and large, not one of them. The plan to open a non-fee-paying equivalent – “the Eton of the state sector”, as its backers call it – therefore warrants close attention.
At first glance the proposal put forward by Greg Martin, the headteacher of the successful Durand primary school academy in south London, has much to recommend it. If all goes well, September 2014 will see some 600 teenagers from deprived areas of the capital installed as weekly boarders at a newly refurbished school in the heart of the West Sussex countryside – with all the space, facilities, focus and routine that those from less affluent families often lack, to the detriment of their education.
Mr Martin is not the first to try to bridge the divide between the independent and state sectors. Labour’s Andrew Adonis believes strongly that the boarding school model has a great deal to offer to children from under-privileged, even chaotic backgrounds; as an education minister he encouraged independent institutions to increase their intake from state schools and also boosted government-funded bursaries. Some public schools are also making moves themselves, either opening up their facilities to local state schools or – in the case of Eton and Wellington – setting up their own affiliated academies.
The Durand project goes far further, however. And, given the Education Secretary’s iconoclastic approach to improving Britain’s schools, his enthusiasm for the scheme – which runs to £17m-plus of public money to help fund the building works – is no surprise. In theory, at least, Michael Gove is quite right. There is much to be said for a more imaginative approach to state schooling, more still for the best lessons of the private sector to be applied for the benefit of those who cannot afford to pay.
What is by no means clear, however, is whether the practicalities of this particular scheme have been adequately thought through. That so many of the residents of the nearby village are up in arms at the prospect of a new boarding school on their doorstep does not, by itself, constitute a compelling case against the project going ahead. Similarly, the outburst from John Cherry – the councillor forced to resign from the Conservative Party over his racist remarks about Durand’s prospective students – is just a rather depressing sideshow. But the questions raised about the financial sustainability of the venture are no less pertinent for all that.
The scheme’s critics allege that both the building costs and, even more markedly, the per-pupil running costs are gross underestimates. The result, they warn, will be a “white elephant”, wasting taxpayers’ money and marring one of Britain’s designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Mr Martin, of course, rejects the claim. But the charge is a sufficiently serious one for Margaret Hodge, the chair of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, to have referred the matter to the National Audit Office for review. Meanwhile, yesterday’s PAC report lambasting the Department for Education for academies’ £1bn overspend hardly instils confidence in the financial rigour of Mr Gove’s oversight.
If it can be made to work, the Durand boarding school has great potential. It would be a shame indeed were the opportunity wasted on account of either poor financial modelling or insufficient resources. In common with the Education Secretary, this newspaper is all for innovation. But it needs to be done properly.