Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What sort of sadist sends a child to boarding school? Me

By James Delingpole

"It’s such a hole this place,” wrote the young Prince Charles, with feeling, from his rugged Scottish boarding school Gordonstoun. Given the endless bullying he got – not to mention the school’s famously spartan cold-showers-and-early-morning-run regime – is it any wonder his loving grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was shown in recently published letters to have pleaded with her daughter not to send him there?

But that was back in the Sixties, when Britain was another country. Today, of course, it would be quite unthinkable for any half‑way sentient parent to pack off their darling boy, from the age of eight or nine onwards, to a school far from home, with no Mummy to kiss him goodnight, and just a half dozen sobbing, snoring, bed-wetting dorm-mates for company. What kind of sadist would you have to be to do that now?

Well, a sadist a bit like me, I suppose. Though my wife initially vowed we’d never do it, we have ended up sending all three of our children to boarding school. And this isn’t because we can easily afford it, nor because we love our kids any less than day-school parents love theirs, nor because it buys us lots more time (laughs darkly and bitterly) to go on groovy holidays-à-deux without having to worry about child care. We do it for one main reason: because it makes our children happy.

A happy boarding school education? To anyone of my generation or older, this will probably sound an oxymoron. My own boarding school days – at my now-defunct prep school, at any rate – were grisly: lumpy mattresses, cold dorms, gristly food, harsh discipline. Reading Prince Charles’s Gordonstoun letters, I got an instant shock of recognition: I, too, used to refer to my school as “Colditz”. (Only not in correspondence: the prison’s censors – and I’m not joking here – wouldn’t allow it. Apparently the truth might upset our parents.)

Things are very different now, though. Of the 73,000 children currently boarding at state or private schools in Britain, I’d say the vast majority are there because they actually want to be. They’ve read Harry Potter, they’ve seen the facilities (four-star hotel meets Center Parcs) and they want to live the dream.

This has been as true for our Girl, 12, as it was for Boy, 14. Reared on Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl series and the (Rupert Everett) St Trinian’s movies, she was damned if she was going to be cheated out of the gloriously eccentric prep school boarding education that she had seen her brother enjoy.

This means that tonight – as throughout term‑time – my wife and I will be rattling around the house on our own, the beds where our kids were sleeping during last weekend’s exeat now cold and empty once more. Parents of day-school children tell you, often with a slightly accusing tone in their voices, that this is an experience they could never bear. I’ll concede them their point, just so long as they don’t think this makes them more caring, loving parents. Indeed, I believe that quite the opposite is true.

Why is it more loving and caring to send your kids away to boarding school? (If you can afford it, which I’m not suggesting everyone can – even if, like us, you’re heavily subsidised by bursaries.) Partly because children, like all herd animals, prefer to be with their own kind. Sure it’s nice, as a parent, to be able to see them every day. But what they’d prefer – being, let’s be honest here, not nearly as into you as you are into them – is to be in an environment where they’ve got dozens of mates on tap from the moment they wake up till the second they fall asleep. This is not a service you can provide at home.

Then there’s the superior pastoral care. All right, again, this is something that, as a parent, you like to think you can provide perfectly well yourself. But can you do as good a job as they do at boarding school? I wonder. Though you do hear horror stories about school houses where the kids run riot because the housemaster is too slack, or where they turn into angry rebels because the housemaster is too draconian, our experiences with all three of our children have been extremely happy ones.

My stepson Jim – aka the Rat – was the first to go away, to a superb state boarding school near my family in the Midlands called Old Swinford Hospital. Jim was bright but a slacker and could easily have gone off the rails. But he was steered through a difficult adolescence by an inspirational housemaster – Dennis Christley – who’d dealt with hundreds more teenage boys than I ever had and who, by administering just the right amount of carrot and stick at just the right moments, turned Jim into the charming, rounded, socially well‑adjusted delight he is today.

You could argue, I suppose, that this is the parents’ job. But is there any rule that says it has to be? I’m quite capable of killing a chicken but I’d rather get it from the butcher; I might even be able to fill in a tax return, but it’s far less painful to let my accountant do it.

It’s the same with kids – especially ones who are teenaged, like Boy is now and like Girl soon will be. Do I really want to be there to experience every strop, every mope, every accusation of how totally lame, uncool and unfunny I am? Personally, I’d rather contract these chores out to the professionals.

Indeed, this was what the headmaster of Boy’s new school promised us in his welcoming address. “Your boys will soon be entering the dark, stagnant tunnel of festering vileness that is adolescence,” he said (I paraphrase, very loosely). “But it’s OK, that’s our problem. Just keep paying the fees and in five years’ time, we will have nurtured your spotty, poisonous caterpillar into a magnificent butterfly – or mighty hawk’s moth, perhaps, if you think butterflies are too camp…”

In these grim, anti-elitist times, even this benefit is sometimes used against boarding schools. The children they turn out, we’re told, are too polished, too articulate, too privileged to play a meaningful part in our wonderful new, dumbed-down, multicultural, egalitarian, post‑jobs world. Why, the only kids they’ve ever met are other rich, white kids.

Again, this isn’t an argument that stands up. First, many of the kids at boarding school these days come from quite ordinary backgrounds – even at Eton, 20 per cent are on bursaries. Second, these schools are often at least as multicultural as those in the state sector. No fewer than 26,376 of the 67,927 kids at private boarding schools last year were non-British with parents living abroad: that’s well over a third. Sure, those kids are probably a financial notch or two above the Somali and Polish kids at the neighbouring comp, but that doesn’t make their presence any less culturally enriching.

Or socially beneficial. Remember, the children of the Russian oligarchs, Chinese senior party members, Indian magnates and Korean car manufacturers currently being educated at British boarding schools are one day going to be running the post-Anglosphere world. So in fact, far from sheltering our darlings from reality, we boarding school parents are preparing them for it.

Our children are imbibing the vital importance of getting in with the new masters of the universe – learning their ways, softening their barbarian customs with our traditional native virtues of decency, good manners and fair play, and becoming their trusted friends. If that’s not worth the sacrifice we parents make of going without the sight of our darling ones for two or three weeks at a stretch, I don’t know what is.


Roedean head attacks 'hostility' to private schools as she quits UK for job in Switzerland

The headmistress of a leading independent school for girls condemned hostile attitudes to private education yesterday as she revealed she is quitting Britain for a job abroad.

Frances King, head of Roedean for five years, said she was fed up with being ‘always on the negative side of public opinion’.

Private schools had been through a ‘bruising time’ and the Government ‘cannot afford to be supportive’, she claimed.

Mrs King will leave the UK to become director of an international school in Switzerland – Collège Alpin Beau Soleil – in the summer. She said she found it ‘quite hard work’ working against a tide of disapproval in Britain.

While UK private education was increasingly sought-after among overseas parents, Britain itself was unable to celebrate its success and heritage, she warned.

‘It is quite hard work to continue to be always on the negative side of public opinion,’ said Mrs King who became head of Roedean, in East Sussex, in 2008.

She added that Roedean was ‘making sure we have got a good amount of money put into bursaries and, as much as we can afford in our situation, we are trying to ensure widening access’.

The school was also staying focused on its core purpose of providing ‘top quality education’, she said, but it was ‘hard work’ pursuing this in the face of national disapproval.

Fellow headmistress Vicky Tuck expressed similar sentiments when she left Cheltenham Ladies’ College for a school in Switzerland in 2011. She said she was made to feel ‘slightly immoral’ for running a fee-paying school.

‘There are things about England and British education that are quite irksome – you have constantly to defend independent education,’ Mrs Tuck said at the time. ‘Many of us in the independent sector work very hard and feel at times we have to apologise for what we’re doing.’

At Roedean, where fees for boarders are up to £31,350 a year, half of pupils are now from overseas.

Oxford-educated Mrs King, who was previously head of Heathfield School for Girls, Ascot, said some boarding schools in Britain were a throwback to the days of the British Empire, when children were sent home to be educated.

She told the Times: ‘They are still struggling on. There was a boom period when local British people decided that boarding was just the best thing; that is now changing, perfectly reasonably – you want your child at home.’

Strong schools such as Roedean would continue to thrive but others would ‘find the market too tough’.


Teach basic knowledge, not 'skills'

This needn’t mean schools resurrect the dreaded “rote memorization” bogeyman

It's a common trick to sell parents and taxpayers lemons by using words most people find attractive. California state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson's proposal to shift state tests to fit the Common Core falls into this category.

"Multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests alone simply cannot do the job anymore," he said. He wants tests that "measure the real-world skills our students need to be ready for a career and for college." This means moving away from memorizing knowledge toward "critical thinking" and "problem solving." The new tests would have children write short essays and complete computer projects, and they will have to be graded by hand.

No reasonable person opposes critical thinking and problem solving. But children cannot develop these abilities without a broad base of knowledge. Asking them to do so is like telling them to build a house with no materials, because skills must be applied to something. If children have no experience with this, they end up having neither skills nor knowledge.

This is a signature insight of University of Virginia researcher and self-described liberal E.D. Hirsch. He found that students with broad knowledge in basic subjects such as math, English, history and science understood college-level texts better than their peers who did not focus on real content in school.

This and subsequent research has resoundingly demonstrated that teachers should impart facts and knowledge rather than empty "real-world skills," because it is very difficult to apply skills to facts and knowledge you have never encountered. The consensus in neuroscience is that the "higher-order" academic skills Torlakson wants, such as reading comprehension, require readers to know related information.

Skills-based classrooms send kids into the world to participate in democracy when they have never learned democracy's history and language.

This needn't mean schools resurrect the dreaded "rote memorization" bogeyman. It simply means elementary students would read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Dickinson and study ancient Rome, the world's major rivers, and the Declaration of Independence, for example.

Failing to encounter and store away this basic knowledge hurts all children, but particularly hurts poor and minority children, Hirsch has shown, because their parents are the least likely to fill in these knowledge gaps. Thus schools exacerbate an existing achievement gap by not teaching all students core knowledge. This is a major impediment to kids' future success, because word knowledge, for example, strongly predicts income level.

When Torlakson says the Common Core – requirements for what each student should know in each grade in math and English – prompted his proposal, it should make citizens think long and hard about those standards, given that the focus on "skills" destroys learning. If the Common Core also focuses on skills, as its creators indicate, California will be one of 46 states to increase educational inequality.

Besides being necessary for college and jobs, these are the basic things parents and taxpayers expect their schools to teach. California should follow another blue state's lead: In 1993, Maryland began requiring schools to teach content-focused curriculum. For the past decade, its achievement gap has narrowed, its students have hit the top of the national test-score charts, and the state holds its own when compared to foreign countries. California's children would benefit from a similar change.


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