New boarding schools for ‘troubled’ pupils

The Independent is reporting today that the Government intends to establish “prestigious” new boarding schools for troubled teenagers as part of plans to renovate run-down inner-city areas. A senior government advisor says that “at least one potential sponsor” has already been found to set up these new academies.

I find this story rather confusing, particularly these two paragraphs:

Official proposals for new academies, the flagship city schools which have the personal backing of Tony Blair, include setting up boarding houses that could cater for children from broken homes or in council care. Boarding academies fit in with Mr Blair’s vision of offering parents who are fed up with state schooling the type of provision they could expect in the independent sector.

So, are these to be schools offering education to public-school standard (public school here meaning élite private school), or a new batch of special boarding schools for troubled teenagers, the like of which many closed in the early 1990s, partly (allegedly) due to the John Major recession and partly due to the change of attitudes which took place at that time?

I’m rather worried by talk of moving back to the days of removing pupils from mainstream education, and from their families, into boarding schools. In the old days, not all the pupils sent to these boarding schools had unhappy or troubled home lives; far from it. Many of them (like me) had problems entirely affecting their school lives. Boarding schools may well make their problems worse; I fail to see why a city the size of London - or any other large city - cannot sustain at least one specialist school for pupils with social disabilities, whether or not it affects their academic work.

Second, these boarding schools were often run by private corporations, others by social ideologues or “visionaries”, the most famous being AS Neill and Otto Shaw (who founded, respectively, Summerhill and Red Hill boarding schools). Summerhill was featured in a notorious TV documentary in 1992 which portrayed it as being chaotic, which according to subsequent letters in the Guardian, was the result of its focus on a disturbed group of American pupils who weren’t there very long. In 1989 when my family was looking for a school for me after my disastrous two-day stint at a local two-bit private school (Winton, which closed in 1994, good riddance), we went to look at Red Hill having heard very positive reports about it. We weren’t impressed, and I saw a fight in a classroom.

The school to which I eventually did go was Kesgrave Hall in Suffolk. I had considerable apprehension about the school; for one thing, it was the least generous about weekends home (every three weeks), the dormitories were the old-style six-to-a-room rather than the bedrooms found at some of the other schools we looked at; I found the headmaster rather creepy and I suspect my mother did too (he and his wife have the same first names as my parents, a coincidence my mother found unpleasant), and I wasn’t impressed with the geography teacher’s quick-fire conversation style. I went to the school with as positive an attitude as I think was possible, something which was shattered in my first few days there.

I don’t think it’s worth boring you all with the details of everything that happened. I wasn’t seriously abused, but as I’ve mentioned before, I remember the stress of living there and not knowing whether people were going to be friendly or at my throat. There was also quite a bit of sexual harrassment in my first year there, and one of the boys who used to do this was later locked up for molesting young girls while babysitting them. The school hired a number of unsuitable staff and also took on unsuitable pupils, and on top of this it placed boys together in dormitories who really should not have been together. Quite a few things happened which would, in a proper school, have resulted in sackings and possibly criminal charges. These included public assaults on pupils and also overt racism, including from the deputy headmaster.

The school finally folded in 1994, having been sold as a “going concern” to a group who had supposedly taken over Red Hill as well. The company had the same name as the building in which Red Hill was situated. (I later discovered that they had not managed to take over Red Hill at all.) They ploughed much money into the school - for example, a full complement of new beds were delivered in 1993, to replace the school’s often terrible existing beds. I ignored all advice to stay, and I found out in early 1994 from two “old boys” who came to my door selling things, and by chance recognised me, that the school had folded a few months before. Years later, another old boy told me that social workers came to his house during the holidays and told him to come to the school with them to retrieve his belongings, as the school had gone bust. I never found out the full details, but I understand there were “dodgy dealings” and that the “new management” had disappeared.

I don’t record all of this to seek pity from any reader. The point is that I don’t want to see more schools of this type opening up - incompetently-run schools which often make people’s problems worse rather than better. It appears that they will be state schools rather than private schools, so anyone seeking employment will have to convince the education authorities that he is suitable. But how will they ensure that these schools don’t end up as places where the troubled teenagers’ problems simply feed off each other? How will they ensure that children are not unnecessarily sent miles out of their area, as happened to nearly all the people at my school? And what will happen if their private-sector sponsors suddenly go bust, legitimately or otherwise? I concede that these schools are not inherently destined to be dumps, and one of my friends from that school was quite impressed by a school of this type he visited as a potential employee. But they need to be kept under a very close eye, and they do need to listen to the pupils.

(I should add that Kesgrave Hall school as I knew it has nothing to do with the Ryes School organisation which now runs what I believe to be the fifth boarding school in the building’s history. They are a totally different group of people.)

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