The great boarding schools of Britain: Ivory Towers or incubators of technical innovation?

The Kings School Canterbury

One of the great myths surrounding boarding schools is that they confer an unfair advantage on children by hothousing them for exams that decide their university admission. In reality, any hothousing has to co-exist with participation in a wide variety of activity. The overriding objective of boarding schools is actually to balance academic study with the vocational, non-academic skills that make for a truly rounded education. In just about every non-English speaking country, the ‘best’ schools are state run, predominantly academic focused preserves of metropolitan elites. It follows that the anti-hothouse culture of British boarding schools reduces competition to academic degrees for children from less privileged backgrounds. 

Charles Bonas, Bonas MacFarlane Education

And this culture is overwhelmingly positive. Benjamin Franklin remarked that the world is full of ‘educated derelicts’. When academically inclined students do not achieve quite the grades demanded by the top ranked universities, they still access slightly less competitive entry point courses that might better managed and even offer higher employment prospects. Meanwhile, they will have acquired at school lifelong practical and communication skills that are so intensely relevant to every type of industry and enterprise. Some public schools have their own farms; all champion volunteer work in the community; technical education in design and technology is placed at a premium; enterprise societies abound; practically based activities are celebrated just as much as the learning of abstract theory. 

Not so long ago, a good number of independently educated children went straight from school to family businesses and then acquired the industry specific skills that are taught so well in the Further Education Sector, that was wrongly stereotyped as a low grade, ‘blue collar’ provider of training just for the working classes. There is now a movement back to apprenticeships and away from humanities degree courses. The extraordinary diversity and choice provided by the Further Education sector, with it’s focus on practical employment driven skill acquisition, is possibly more similar in accessibility and culture to the independent school sector than public schools are to the ivory towers of Oxbridge. 

Freedom to select education choices and the celebration of hands-on creativity and practicality are not uniquely British qualities, but still attract tens of thousands of Asian students here. Parents from these countries are astounded but intensely respectful when I tell them that the Queen’s nephew, David Linley (now The Earl of Snowdon) effectively trained as a carpenter: he applied the joinery skills learnt at his progressive school (Bedales) to develop a fabulously successful business.

A second myth is that independent schools are the preserve of the wealthy. The most expensive have increased their bursaries to a level where up to a third of pupils are given substantial assistance with fees. Within a generation schools such as St Paul’s aim to become ‘needs blind’ to the ability of applicants to pay any fees whatsoever. And then there are the thousands of schools where the fees are relatively low; the average school fee according to the 2018 Independent Schools Council Census is £17,232. Many children from households that are not wealthy access at least two years of independent education. For those who may need a smaller or specialist school than is offered to them by the state, this is a life changing opportunity. 

Charles Bonas