Phones were red-hot in the BSA office on Friday 28 March, with journalists chasing information to fill out the press release from the Halifax Financial Services, about steep rises in boarding fees in the last ten years (articles appeared in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Herald, amongst others).
The Halifax had raided the ISC census material – public record – and done the sums which showed boarding fees had risen 86% since 1997. And so they had – the numbers were unarguable.
Journalists wanted to know why. The answers were simple – boarding schools came into the twenty-first century in those years, like everyone else. Customers are ever more discerning and discriminating: parents want the best for their children.
Yes of course they want the best education; but they also want boarding accommodation they feel comfortable with, and facilities which will give children wonderful opportunities to discover and nurture other skills – state of the art theatres and swimming pools, for instance.
In 1997, the average capital spend per pupil in independent schools was £525. In 2007, it was £1250 per boarding pupil for new and refurbished boarding accommodation alone.
Investment in accommodation moves schools away from vast freezing dormitories and towards single study bedrooms with en suite facilities. Inspectors look for personalisation of pupil space – they get that now in spades.
Staffing ratios are also likely to be higher, and boarding staff are likely to be better trained – we know that because a thousand boarding staff have been through the BSA’s professional development courses, accredited by Roehampton University, in the last ten years.
Last year and this, 400 Gap assistants attended BSA induction courses at the start of their year in British schools. If schools are prepared to strengthen the skills of youngsters who will be with them only a year, how much more will they invest in training their more senior staff so that boarding really is an excellent experience for pupils?
In the event, perhaps journalists realised the story wasn’t really a story at all – particularly when they read paragraphs which said, ‘London is the most expensive, Wales the least expensive,’ for boarding – had they noticed the differences in the prices for just about everything between Wales and London? So the press release did not get the wide coverage it might have done, and the dreadful news of the plane crash may have shunted the story down the pecking order.
We await the release of the next ISC census on 29 April. It will be interesting to see what the percentage increase in fees was for this year, and how boarding numbers are faring. Many schools have spoken informally of numbers rising – let us hope they have, as parents realise the value of a boarding education, whatever its price.