The Guardian has an interesting look at state boarding schools which, writer Liz Lightfoot suggests, offer their day pupils amazing extracurricular activities and wraparound care, but at a high price…
It’s 3.30pm and children across the country are making their way home from school, but no buses are arriving at the Royal Alexandra and Albert school at Redhill, Surrey. Instead, the pupils are chatting on sofas, drinking milk and wolfing down cheese and biscuits before they take off for group activities ranging from swimming, cookery and judo to horse riding, debating and science.
This is the extended “family friendly” school day that Michael Gove, the education secretary, says he would like to see replicated in all state schools. Busy parents working long hours or commuting are able to drop their children off for breakfast and pick them up after supper.
If it sounds too good to be true then it is, at least for the vast majority of the population. The Royal Alexandra and Albert is a state boarding school, one of only 35 in the whole of the UK. Boarding fees are a fraction of those at independent schools because the education is free and parents pay just for food and lodging.
But in fact, only a minority of students are boarders at most of these schools. They take local day pupils, just like other state schools.
The schools are popular and oversubscribed. Gordon’s in Woking, Surrey, for example, has more than four applications for each “day boarder” place and its catchment area is around 700 metres. Families living nearby have offered their homes for sale to other parents on Mumsnet education forums.
But it comes at a cost. Parents of day pupils at Gordon’s – and remember, this is a state school – are charged £6,483 a year. Day pupils at the Royal Alexandra and Albert are charged £5,000, with the fee including up to 10 overnight stays a year.
Complaints have been made, though, that the fees render the schools selective on ability to pay and now the Department for Education is thought to be considering a referral to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, the body that rules on fair admissions and can order schools to change their policies. Under the 1996 Education Act it is illegal for state schools to charge for admission or for education provided during school hours. They can, however, ask for voluntary contributions and may charge for “optional extras” such as materials, non-teaching staff wages or the extra hours worked by teachers.
“It’s hard to see how a policy of charging several thousand pounds per year to day pupils can be viewed as anything other than socially selective,” says Janette Wallis, of the Good Schools Guide, which lists state and private schools. “Many parents would struggle to pay a quarter of that. Even with means-tested bursaries available, it seems to blur the line between state and fee-paying,” she says. “If state boarding schools are permitted to impose a fee on all their day pupils, can other state schools do the same?”
…Loss of income from day fees could put the schools in financial jeopardy, though, at a time when state boarding is being extended with the building of Durand academy near Midhurst in West Sussex to take weekly boarders from inner London.
Gove has personally backed the project as a “bright ray of hope” for the children of the Durand academy junior and middle school in Stockwell, south London, who will be bussed to the new boarding school for 13- to 16-year-olds on Mondays and home again on Fridays…
Gove personally is unlikely to want to see state boarding schools reported to the adjudicator by his own department. A spokeswoman for the DfE said: “Nothing has been referred at this stage.”
State boarding schools – some of which are academically selective – survived under the last Labour government because they can provide a haven for children from chaotic home backgrounds or families posted abroad, usually through the armed services. One of their biggest supporters is Lord Adonis, the former Labour education adviser and minister, who himself attended one…
Your thoughts on the idea of state boarding schools, especially those charging fees for non-boarding pupils? Fulfilling a useful role or not quite right? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter…