There is tremendous confidence in boarding at the moment, as schools adapt to a changing market and an increasingly international outlook. Hilary Moriarty, National Director of the BSA, explains.
Hands up if you thought boarding numbers were falling. Now put your hand down and hear the good news: the ISC statistics for 2009 revealed in May that boarding numbers in independent schools for that year were more than a thousand up on the previous year. On a total number of independent school boarders of 68,131, that’s not a lot. But it was the biggest rise in numbers for three years, and it came in the middle of a doom and gloom year in which everyone felt the chill wind of recession in the highways and byways of Britain.
We are aware, of course, that independent education will reflect a recession quite late in the day: once a child is in school, most parents would beg, steal, borrow or contemplate playing Belle du Jour sooner than take the child out. Independent school parents are well aware of the value of continuity of education and their children will certainly remind them of the value of teenage friendships and the pain of disruption. Then there is the two year lock on a child generated by the GCSE and A Level or IB structure of courses and examinations. Add in the freedom of schools and individual departments to choose for their candidates whichever syllabus offered by whichever examination board to suit them, so that History here can be wildly different from History there, and suddenly changing school looks more than unwise. It looks disastrous.
Because the credit crunch really bit in the Autumn of 2008, children safely ensconced independent schools by then were likely to stay there, at least for the year. So any fall in boarding numbers was more likely to show in the statistics for 2009-2010, available in May 2010. And this may be the case, we must wait and see. But at the moment the word on the street is of numbers at the very least holding steady, and some schools are happily reporting that their boarding dormitories have never been fuller.
While we wait for news of the current year, what do the figures for last year tell us? They tell us how well boarding schools have adapted to a changing market. They have raised their game to meet the ambitions and expectations of evermore demanding parents and pupils, many of whom seem to be looking for the ‘Wow!’ factor. In the last two years, independent schools have spent almost £200 million on new and refurbished boarding accommodation alone – and that’s not to mention more millions on classrooms and theatres and laboratories and Astroturf and sports halls.
The expenditure is indicative of tremendous confidence in boarding, and the numbers rising last year justify it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that much of the building and refurbishing is happening for the sixth forms. Of the 68,000 boarders, more than 27,000 are in sixth forms. Apart from helping schools to retain their own Year 11 pupils, really attractive sixth form accommodation is an excellent recruiting tool for new pupils. By the time their offspring are 16, parents have few worries about homesickness and can see real merit in a couple of years of semi-independence in a protected environment. Many parents would see boarding in the sixth form as offering a much safer world for their child than that which embraces (or threatens?) a day pupil from school gate to home every day of the week, and every hour the good Lord sends at weekends.
A second statistic about boarders shows that 21,000 of them are international students, with parents resident all over the world. Interestingly, the number of such students was also up by around a thousand. And what might that tell us? Well, one must remember that statistics actually give us only numbers. Interpretation is in effect speculation. But some speculation is reasonable at this point.
In the same way that schools are offering better accommodation to all their boarders, they have upped their game for international students also. On a simple level, there is a greater awareness of their cultural needs and differences. Gone are the days – and perhaps not so long gone at that – when a Head Chef in a school could declare, ‘They have come to Britain to learn all about Britain, and that includes food, and we do potatoes, and we don’t do noodles, so they’ll just have to learn to like them.’ (Reader, I heard it myself.)
These days, schools are aware of the huge importance of food for all manner of reasons – a dramatic change of diet can at worst cause physical upset and at best mild depression. For international students from very different cultures and a long way from home, food can almost literally be a life-line. I once knew of a school which marked Chinese New Year by putting up a single Chinese lantern in each dormitory occupied by a student from Hong Kong or China. Last Chinese New Year, I happened to be visiting a senior boarding school where you could not see the ceiling of the dining hall for hundreds of such lanterns, and there was a real party atmosphere about the whole school, although its Chinese pupils were a tiny percentage of its total boarders.
Celebrating the different cultures of pupils is one thing. More serious pursuit of international students may be seen in the number of boarding schools now offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) as their leaving qualification. Obviously, IB has grown in popularity in recent years anyway, as a result of concerns that there has been too much political interference in the A Level qualification, that it is not what it used to be, that too many students attain A grades and that just three or four subjects is not enough to indicate breadth of wisdom and knowledge prior to university.
The IB, with its six subjects (three at higher, three at standard level), its Theory of Knowledge, Creativity, Action and Service and Extended Essay elements, appears to offer a much wider education for the last two years of school. But over and above its increasing popularity with many schools, IB is certainly popular with German and other European students. They see it as an internationally portable qualification – acceptable in more than 100 countries – enabling them to delay the choice over where to attend university, perhaps in Britain or back home in Germany. A British degree is likely to have a German student qualified faster than in Germany, so whatever it costs, a British university it may look like very good value.
Boarding schools observing the increase in the number of boarders from Germany (up from 878 new students in 2005 to 1,361 in 2009, according to ISC Census statistics) may well wonder if IB is a major reason for the growth, and pause to take stock of their sixth form curriculum. The Government may be seen to have added ammunition to the pro-IB lobby by allocating substantial UCAS points for IB grades. In 2010, the UCAS tariff for scoring 45 points at IB – the very top mark – will be 720 points. Hard for any A Level candidate to match that, when an A Level gets 120 points, three As equalling 360 UCAS points. By 2010, the A* at A Level will be available, but even then, the A* grade is worth only 140 points. A candidate would need 5 A* grades at A level (700 UCAS points) to get even close to the 720 an IB candidate can score for the full 45 marks. Scoring just 30 out of the 45 IB marks gives a candidate UCAS points of 392 – better than three A grades at A level at 360 UCAS points.
If the maths sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. But it does point to considerable benefit for schools offering IB – a possible surge in European pupils in particular joining their sixth forms, and the very strong likelihood of rising in the league tables based on UCAS tariffs. As it happens, pupil numbers from China and Hong Kong, traditionally hot spots for international recruiting, may be adversely affected by the change to IB: historically, students from Asia have been happy to specialise in Mathematics and the sciences. This combination is unlikely in an IB hand of six subjects representing a spread of interests including humanities and languages. In addition, IB requires a dissertation which would test thoroughly the language skills of the student, as well as his or her wider interests. High grade literacy skills may be less necessary for a ‘pure’ scientist or mathematician than would be the case for an arts or humanities student. Numbers of students from mainland China coming to independent boarding schools have been rising in recent times – 464 new students in 2000, for instance, up to 1,390 in 2009. From Hong Kong in each of the last three years, about 1600 new students have come to British boarding schools.
If there was ever a time when British parents were worried about a boarding school having too big an international population – straying too far, perhaps, from the mythical Malory Towers model – perhaps those days have also gone. Many more parents themselves now work in multi-national companies and can well see the value of establishing friendships across the world, all the stronger because of the firm bonding experience of a shared life at boarding school. A colleague recently told me how much she would miss her 16-year-old daughter at Christmas, but how thrilled she was that her daughter would be spending the holiday in China with her best friend’s family.
When Ofsted inspectors come to boarding schools looking for evidence of their policies on equality and diversity, their international communities become star turns. Even state boarding schools are likely to have a number of pupils from the EEA, young Europeans taking advantage of the remarkably low fees which are possible when it is a state school – and therefore the education is free – and parents are paying only for boarding. Members of the European Community are of course eligible for such places, although for international students needing visas and looking for a British school, it must be an independent school.
The high percentage of international (non-EEA) students in British universities – one in ten in 2007/8, according to The Guardian – is an indication of how British education is valued around the world. We can only hope that the new Points Based System (PBS) of immigration, with schools licensed to sponsor international students to come into the country, with attendant responsibilities to report their absence should they disappear from our classrooms, not to mention the demands of an application form longer than 40 pages for a visa, will not damage what you might call UKEducation as a brand. Most of the young people who choose a British education in a British boarding school will also have heard the siren songs of education establishments in Australia, Canada and the US, and they can be very persuasive.
There is much to be proud of in our schools if these intelligent and discriminating young people from around the world still choose to join them. Long may it continue.