Gove’s boarding academy borders on the ridiculous

Writing in the Observer, Catherine Bennett says that behind all the race headlines, the proposed weekly state boarding school from the Durand Academy is an experiment that will be about as accessible as Hogwarts to most pupils…

For the Conservatives, as the Labour education spokesman, Stephen Twigg, gratefully reminded us, Mr Cherry [the Conservative councillor at the heart of the race storm] is not a good look: “It’s no surprise people still think of the Conservatives as the nasty party.” Taking the longer view, however, perhaps Mr Twigg can see that the embarrassment of the racist, but now excluded and serially condemned Cherry, has doubled as an opportunity for Michael Gove to portray the Durand boarding school scheme as visionary, magnificently enlightened, a superb use of more than £17m of state funds.

How, having heard his objections, is it possible for a decent person to be on the same side on this issue as the ghastly Cherry? Academy-sceptics who might have wondered, were Durand being assessed on its own, dubious merits, if there weren’t better ways to serve Stockwell’s teenaged pupils, must now be more likely to see the point of a bizarre one-off, which is going in news reports by the cringeing oxymoron, “the state Eton”. The Department of Education called it “a bold experiment and a chance to give inner-city pupils a truly world-class education”, adding: “It is difficult to believe that anyone would want to obstruct such an inspirational project.” Well, it’s just got a lot more difficult, certainly, thanks to Mr Cherry.

In fact, if Mr Cherry were not a real person, it would be tempting to think that he had been entirely designed on a computer at Durand’s PR agency, Political Lobbying & Media Relations. In 2011, PLMR won two Gold Lion prizes at Cannes for its campaign to get DoE money for the boarding school. “Over £2m worth of print and broadcast coverage,” swanks a triumphal video. “Public relations and political relations brought Durand’s case to millions and helped make their dream a reality.”

And now let’s hear it for West Sussex racism, without which the case against building Durand academy, in and around the site of the abandoned St Cuthman’s school, might have focused, drearily, on its disputed costs. Opponents of the scheme, who have consulted Melvyn Roffe, headmaster of a state boarding school in Norfolk, argue that the school’s financial estimates are unrealistically low or to quote Roffe, talking to the Independent, “ludicrous”. Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee, has asked the National Audit Office to investigate the DoE’s “investment decision” and the basis upon which the £17m grant was made.

But if Durand can, eventually, be defended against environmental and financial objections, it will still, as the DoE admits, be “an experiment”, and a deeply eccentric one at that. After the PR campaign, it remains unclear what educational benefits are to be enjoyed by the inner London children and families thereby invited to redress the decline of minor, Rattigan-style public schools that, not being Eton, never conferred on their inmates the latter’s celebrated confidence and guaranteed places in a Cameron-led cabinet. In fact, if he is not to be deflected, Durand’s director of education, Greg Martin, who dreams of leading “the Eton of the state sector”, is advised never to watch The Browning Version or read a wrenching article by the Malvern College alumnus and journalist James Delingpole: “I honestly didn’t realise I’d been to a ‘minor’ public school until my first term at Christ Church.”

Frank Field has strongly endorsed the Durand scheme, citing an established underclass, and the evidence of his own report, “that the life chances of most children are determined before they step into school”. But the Durand boarders, by no means all of them from exceptionally deprived or chaotic homes, will start aged 13, the advantage of this late arrival being, presumably, reduced psychic damage. “Of one thing [however] I do feel fairly sure,” Orwell wrote, in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys“, “and that is that boarding schools are worse than day schools. A child has a better chance with the sanctuary of its home near at hand.”

Although Durand pupils will, of course, be infinitely better taught, housed and treated than the young Orwell, not much geography separates the proposed boarding school, in the disused St Cuthman’s, from the writer’s South Downs prep. “I even conceived a prejudice against Sussex,” Orwell wrote, “as the county that contained St Cyprian’s.” But Orwell’s health did not allow him to enjoy opportunities that will make Durand amens sana paradise for more muscular teens. “They will be taught in 25 acres of open countryside,” Mr Martin says. “There’s a swimming pool, they will go back to playing real cricket, tennis – all in the fantastic open air”.

Professional circumstances have, alas, prevented him from testing his theories in the state system, but the master of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, says we should all get behind Durand’s escapism. “The natural rhythm of the year,” he explains, “is far more beneficial to the rounded growth of balanced young people than a concrete, urban, artificial, neon-lit life.”

Parents tempted by the pre-industrial lifestyle will be aware that, for most pupils, Durand will be about as accessible as Hogwarts. Even supposing concrete-free education were to move from being a counsel of pedagogic despair to a proven means of improving life chances, it would be impossible to distribute it fairly. Aren’t there more effective uses of £17m, simpler ways of getting children outside? Defending exceptionalism, Goveites always ask, why attack good schools? But to promulgate, via Durand, the idea that outdoorsy boarding academies can provide something “inspirational” for the state’s inner city pupils is, implicitly, to do just that. Recent research shows that children in London’s poorest areas, far from requiring export, are now outperforming average students far away from the capital.Much as one might wish to surround Mr Cherry’s parish with a vista of sexual volcanos, exploding brightly for as far as the eye can see, this longed-for corrective hardly justifies one of the strangest educational ventures since the Russells founded Beacon Hill.

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