State boarding schools offer their day pupils amazing extracurricular activities and wraparound care, 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 stateschools. 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?”
Applicants for day places at the Royal Albert and Alexandra are interviewed to assess their “suitability for boarding”. Paul Spencer Ellis, the headteacher, says day pupils are “flexiboarders” because they are required to stay for the extended day and sleep at the school between seven and 10 nights a year.
Margaret Tulloch – secretary of Comprehensive Future, the campaign for fair admissions – says it seems strange to interview pupils about boarding when they go home at night. “There needs to be a proper investigation, perhaps by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. It could also look at the level of compulsory fees being charged – there are state schools all over the country where pupils come in early and are there until 6pm but they don’t charge.”
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.
His department has agreed to pay £17m towards construction costs, but the venture has already run into trouble. It is struggling against local opposition to get planning permission to convert the disused boarding school it purchased in the South Downs national park. Late last year the financial viability of the plan came under scrutiny and the number of pupils it will take was almost halved from 600 to 375 when the sixth form was dropped.
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.
The schools say they are not charging for education but for the boarding element, which includes meals and the extended day. Roy Page, the chairman of the State Boarding Schools’ Association, says his school – The Royal Grammar school, High Wycombe – is an academy and under its funding agreement can charge only for the cost of board and lodging, such as food, heating and maintenance staff.
Only 70 of the 1,370 pupils are boarders and parents of day pupils not in receipt of bursaries pay £3,780 a year. “There is an increasing demand for day boarding, which is perhaps a reflection on modern society. The boys are in boarding houses where they go for refreshment and change into causal clothes. They take part in activities and do their homework, have supper and are then picked up,” he says.
At Gordon’s only 200 of the 750 pupils board overnight but the school says its funding agreement with the DfE recognises all its students as boarders. “All our facilities and the opportunities available to our residential boarders are also available to our day boarders, except for actually sleeping overnight,” says a spokeswoman. “The Gordon Foundation provides financial assistance to lower income families.”
At the Royal Alexandra and Albert – a Palladian mansion set in 260 acres of rolling parkland with three lakes – 440 of the 965 pupils aged 7-18 are full boarders. Spencer Ellis insists the fees are for the boarding experience. “No one goes home at 3.30. The school is full. We want everyone here to have a boarding experience minus the bed,” he says. The 10-night boarding provision is popular with parents who want to holiday on their own in term time or need to travel with work, he says.
“Many of our parents work in London and don’t get home until six and sometimes even 9pm. When a child gets to 11 or 12 it is deeply uncool to go to a child minder after school,” he says.
Far from being socially elitist, the school’s admissions code allows it to take children living further away on council estates who can benefit from the boarding experience of a day place, he says. Some 45 of the 525 “flexi boarders” receive bursaries and pay no fees.
“They all stay for the clubs and activities at 3.30 but they don’t always stay for the evening meal. If they did, we would probably not be able to afford it. We are certainly not making money out of fees.”
Parents of day pupils are getting a good deal says Lorna, the mother of Safia, 12, a pupil at the Royal Alexandra and Albert. “My husband and I both work in London in jobs with unsocial and unpredictable hours. That is the nature of the work we do.
“It may look like an independent school but it is not at all elitist, I wouldn’t have sent her here if it was. The school pays for children from less well off homes and I like that about it.
“If you add up the cost of meals and supervision and factor in the money you could be spending on childminders, then the fees are reasonable. If the DfE stepped in to stop the charging, one of us would have to give up work. If the school couldn’t afford to provide the extras, then all the children would suffer.”
Source: The Guardian