Captain Raindrop # 2 – interview with Rory Darling

In my second interview of my Captain Raindrop project, I interview Rory Darling.

Rory taught Maths and History at many of the top boarding boys preparatory schools in the country, including Summer Fields, Cothill, Ludgrove, Aysgarth and Elstree.

In Part 1, he talks about his entrance into teaching and the changing life of preparatory schools in the 1970s – 2000s.

Please get in touch if you’d like me to Post Part 2 too.

Please bear with me as I learn more about interviewing, editing, etc etc etc!

Captain Raindrop – Interview with Rhidian Llewellyn

Last week I began a part-time project to interview retired prep school teachers about their teaching methods.

My first subject was Rhidian Llewellyn. Rhidian began his teaching career at Heatherdown. From 1980-1984 he was Head of History and English at Arnold House School in St John’s Wood, London. In 1986 he became Senior Housemaster at The Dragon School, Oxford before being appointed, at the age of 32, Headmaster of Papplewick School, Ascot. He now advises parents and schools via his educational consultancy, Llwellyn Education (http://www.llewellyneducation.co.uk/).

In this interview, we discuss:

  • Life in a prep boarding school
  • Teacher recruitment – 1970s style
  • The breakdown of trust and the rise of conformity
  • Justice vs. Mercy
    – and much much more!

Hope you enjoy! Part Two can be found suggested on the right hand column of YouTube.

The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt–sy4xRA0, and is posted below.

Exam Results and League Tables

UK independent schools are in a bit of a bind when it comes to exam results and league tables. They know that their parents are in one sense “customers” who like to know what they’re “buying”, but they also know that it is the most important aspects of a good education that are the hardest to measure. So I was very heartened to read the Headmaster of Malvern College’s line on public examinations, which seemed to strike the right balance between the pragmatic and the romantic:

If you have been looking for Malvern in the so-called League Tables, you are not likely to find us as Malvern, along with about half of the other independent schools in the country, does not voluntarily participate in an attempt to rank schools solely on the criterion of perceived success in public examinations. In no way does this mean that we do not celebrate the academic achievements of our pupils; indeed, the academic cornerstone of Malvern is central to much of what motivates us and we are extremely ambitious for our students… At Malvern, we make special provision in a range of ways for those who are academically gifted and have every intention of continuing this programme.

The principal reason for our being unwilling to enter league tables is that we do not wish to support a system which becomes the raison d’être for many schools and limits and influences, to a disproportionate extent, a focus on a broad education. In simple terms, we believe that there are a range of other factors of enormous importance in assessing the education offered in a particular school and we do not subscribe to the view that schools can be assessed in the same way as, for example, football clubs.

Secondly, the criteria used to determine where schools lie on such tables are, in essence, the construct of newspapers and different criteria may be applied by different newspapers in any particular year: for example, A*-A, A*-B, A*-C and A*-E may all be used depending upon the newspaper.

Our pupils are aware that they will move into a competitive world and it is vitally important that each one of them has a keen academic focus and builds the strongest academic profile possible. But we do not wish to be an ‘academic factory’ and the rounded education which attaches significant importance to music, art, drama, games, Duke of Edinburgh Award activities, as well as work in the broader community and beyond, are also at the heart of our overall programme.

(http://www.malverncollege.org.uk/Exam-Results)

Oundle Trivium

I recently came across this initiative from Oundle School, and was so heartened that I think Mr Gunson‘s words need quoting in full! What a wonderful example of a school actually enacting that well-worn phrase: “education for its own sake”.

Will follow with interest…

It is vital that pupils do not equate all learning with assessment.

Trivium has no syllabus and no prescribed content. It is a course based on ‘interestingness’. The brief is to educate; to introduce pupils to ideas and culture, to sow seeds and to broaden the educational experience.

The topics explored vary from group to group; whilst one class is studying the works of Koestler, another may be immersed in the art of Berlin. One set of pupils may be discussing ethical aspects of technological advance, whilst another is introduced to the poetry of Yeats.

Many of the themes will overlap, and this is important: one’s appreciation of a work of art is enhanced by an understanding of historical context.

The close relationship between the teacher and the pupils develops during the course of the year. Small set sizes allow for the classroom atmosphere to be similar to that of a tutorial. The philosophy of the course can be summed up by E. M. Forster: only connect.

Eton – after a socialist revolution

I’ve quite enjoyed racing through News from Nowhere, William Morris’ account of England a generation after a socialist revolution.

I’m sure everyone was worrying… “but what would happen to Eton?”

“Up yonder are some beautiful old buildings, which were built for a great college or teaching-place by one of the mediaeval kings – Edward the Sixth, I think” (I rather smiled to myself at his rather natural blunder). “He meant poor people’s sons to be taught there what knowledge was going in his days; but it was a matter of course that in the times of which you seem to know so much they spoilt whatever good there was in the founder’s intentions. My old kinsman says that they treated them in a very simple way, and instead of teaching poor men’s sons to know something, they taught rich men’s sons to know nothing. It seems from what he says that it was a place for the ‘aristocracy ‘(if you know what that means; I have been told its meaning) to get rid of their male children for a great part of the year. I daresay old Hammond would give you plenty of information in detail about it.”

“What is it used for now?” said I.

“Well,” said he, “the buildings were a good deal spoilt by the last few generations of aristocrats, who seem to have had a great hatred against beautiful old buildings, and indeed all records of past history; but it is still a delightful place. Of course we cannot use it quite as the founder intended, since our ideas about teaching young people are so changed from the ideas of his time; so it is used now as a dwelling for people engaged in learning; and folk from round about come and get taught things that they want to learn; and there is a great library there of the best books. So that I don’t think that the old dead king would be much hurt if he were to come to life and see what we are doing there.

“Well,” said Clara, laughing, “I think he would miss the boys.”

“Not always, my dear,” said Dick, “for there are often plenty of boys there, who come to get taught; and also,” said he, smiling, “to learn boating and swimming. I wish we could stop there: but perhaps we had better do that coming down the water.”

Private Schools – Inflation of Fees

Last month, I wrote about about the affordability of independent schools. I am often asked how much private schools fees have risen in the past few decades. I have been looking for a good account for a while, and just recently came across this one in Dominic Carman’s Heads Up:

Comparing 1971 incomes with today as a multiple, the average income has increased by 13.5x – from £2000 to £27000. And prices over the same period? The cost of a First Class stamp has increased by 20x, a pint of beer by 29x, a loaf of bread by 11x, a pint of milk by 8.5x, a gallon of petrol by 20x, and an average house by 45x (source: ONS). And KES fees? In 1971, Claughton’s education cost £135 a year. Today’s annual fees come in at £10,926 – an increase of 81x – six times the increase in average earnings, and nearly twice the increase in house prices. A comparable surge has occurred throughout the independent sector, although day school fees have grown by more, proportionately, than boarding schools, where multiples of 50x are more typical over the same time period.

Mini-Essay: Why Boarding?

The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems…

(http://www.boardingschoolsurvivors.co.uk)

Such is the trauma allegedly caused by attending a British boarding school… and certainly many of the families I have advised over the years (especially from around the Mediterranean!) seem to hold similar views. Even in the UK, many families feel that boarding is wacky or elitist or past its sell-by date.

Does boarding have a place in the modern world? You will find many articles that answer that question by drawing our attention to their ‘excellence’: their excellent academic results, their excellent sports facilities and so on. I agree with the label, but it does not by itself make a case for boarding. This mini-essay will ask: what is the actual purpose of boarding school? What makes it a distinctive choice for parents?

I believe the case for boarding rests on three distinct purposes.

 

Purpose 1) Boarding schools allow parents to entrust their children to those who have been raising children longer than they have.

The Latin origin of the word ‘educate’ is not, as some like to think, ‘educere’ (to lead/draw out) but ‘educare’: to rear. To choose boarding schooling is to delegate a large part of that rearing to experienced and, most importantly, dispassionate teachers. Teachers, male and female, are often called “Masters” in boarding schools because the title once described their minimum qualification (a Masters in Liberal Arts) but, in my mind, it is a title justified more by their mastery of rearing children. Good teachers have often instructed thousands of children. Sometimes this leads to complacency; more often, it leads to a disposition that does not treat every childish whim as an urgent need to be satisfied.

James Delingpole made this point well in an article explaining why he sent his children to boarding school:

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.

Historian and Anthropologist Professor Alan Macfarlane explains (in Letters to Lily) that, even before the popularity of boarding schools, the English believed in the importance of sending their children away from home at a young age:

Long ago, much to the surprise of Italian and French visitors, it was noticed that many of the English sent their children off very young (from as early as age seven) to be brought up in another household. If they were rich, they were pages or ladies-in-waiting; if poor, servants or apprentices. The English said they did this because unrelated strangers or friends could exercise good discipline in a way that parents found very difficult…Later this developed into the sort of education that I had: boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen with parents abroad in India whom I hardly saw. My grandparents, with whom I lived, disciplined me. Meanwhile my parents were like grandparents who could show an uncomplicated and high level of affection.

Is this purpose still necessary? Absolutely. Parents so often tell me how hard it is to be authority figures to their children, especially to teenagers. They describe the nightly battles with homework, the constant setting and re-adjusting of curfews. Parents in the West have probably never been on such intimate terms with their children; they have also probably never found it harder to exercise the discipline that is demanded by paternal and maternal love. Boarding schools help parents enlist the support of experts who, like them, have their child’s best long-term interests at heart but who, unlike them, have enough experience and emotional distance to know how those best interests are realized.

 

Purpose 2) Their immersive cultures are able to exert a more profound influence than day schools.

The reason I started this blog is because I believe boarding schools have the power to enact an educational philosophy of a comprehensiveness that is denied to day schools. Their longer school day and sometimes isolated campuses allow the fostering of a culture that can in some respects be insulated from ordinary affairs.

Under the wrong stewardship, boarding schools can foment the most hideous cultures. Witness the many British boarding schools in the nineties and their problems with bullying and drug addiction. By the same token, though, a well governed and purposeful boarding school culture can prove to be a powerful countervailing wind against the narcissistic and trivial preoccupations that are typical of teenage life.

What is this culture? As stated in the Purpose of my blog, despite the differences of individual schools, I believe that there is such a thing as the ideal British boarding school culture, and that it is something to which most boarding schools aspire. At its best, it is a culture that pays due consideration to the head, the heart and the body; that promotes the virtues of selflessness, teamwork and responsibility; and that stands as a bulwark against the appeals of materialism, cynicism and self-importance. This last word is the most crucial for me. By sublimating a pupil’s ego into a culture that is in every sense larger than itself, the best boarding schools can help to train pupils in that most rare virtue of humility.

At a boarding school, such a culture can be fostered from the moment a pupil wakes to the moment he or she goes to sleep. One Eton housemaster, now the Headmaster of a top day school, lamented the fact to me that his school “basically stopped educating at 5pm”. Etonians, he said, were being educated for at least another four hours per day.

Do any boarding schools really exert a more benign cultural influence than that provided at home? How can you tell? School websites and Open Days can reveal a school’s culture, if a somewhat manicured version, but perhaps the best way to see a culture in action is via the raft of fly-on-the-wall documentaries that are now available, most of them for free on YouTube:

The changes through the years are fascinating (do Eton boys still sit around “declaiming” with their pals before class?) but more telling to my mind is the cultural thread that runs through them all over the past half-century. It’s a thread that runs back until at least Thomas Arnold’s day at Rugby. It is hard, though of course not impossible, to foster at home.

 

Purpose 3) They encourage independence.

This purpose is the most popular motivation cited by prospective parents and pupils. Of course, independence feeds out of the two purposes mentioned above: being away from one’s parents and being part of a strong and positive culture. It is so self-evident a merit of boarding school life that I shall limit myself to just a few observations.

Firstly, in what ways is the independence learned at boarding school different from that learned at day school? Boarding pupils are physically independent from their parents; if they have been put through a rigorous curriculum, let us hope that they will become independent in mind and thought too. I think the independence that boarding schools most aim for, though, is the independence from simple or immediate gratification. Boarding schools train habits very well. It is through undertaking – and surviving – unpleasant experiences that we grow up. From sharing a room with someone you don’t get on with to giving up one’s free evenings to direct the house play to any number of petty annoyances that fill a typical boarding day, boarding schools are ideally conceived to help children grow up being able to cope with, to transcend, the petty stresses and irritations of life.

Secondly, ‘independence’ is not meaningful without its corollary: ‘responsibility.’ Boarding schools return the trust that parents have placed in them…by placing in their children trust to behave responsibly. Sometimes this means trusting older children to run various parts of a school; at other times, it means trusting children simply to use their time wisely. Ex-boarding school pupils are often remarked upon for their confidence (John Locke said that boarding school boys were “bolder and better able to bustle and shift among boys”); it is a confidence derived from exercising responsibility from a reasonably young age. In recent times, there has been a bit of a tendency in boarding schools to micro-manage pupils’ “schedules” (a horrid word), which is a shame. If the school culture is right, schools should have enough confidence in pupils who have earned their independence to use it responsibly.

The result of these three primary purposes is an environment ripe for one of school’s secondary, but most profoundly rewarding, purposes: friendship. Boarding schools encourage that rare breed of lifelong friendship that can only be forged by the sharing of intense life-changing experience. As Hilary Moriarty, Director of Boarding Schools’ Association says, “ask any boarder what has been the best thing about boarding, and they are likely to say, ‘Being with friends,’ whatever their parents may think about academic excellence.”

 

Further Reading

The Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.boarding.org.uk/356/why-boarding-

My Further Reading list: http://www.willorrewing.com/reading-list

Boarding Schools’ Value-added: http://www.ukboardingschools.com/advice/value-added-learning/

State Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.sbsa.org.uk/

Making independent schools affordable

If there is one concern that privately-educated friends of mine with new-born children all share it is that they will not be able to afford the education that they themselves were lucky to receive. I predict that this topic will come to dominate UK boarding schools over the next decades.

Andrew Adonis commented on the inflation in boarding school fees, and its cause, in a speech last year:

‘From the 1980s onward, there was fierce competition for theatres, swimming pools. Independent schools wanted to gold plate all their assets. There was a big reduction in class size… ten or not much more became an article of faith, half the level of the state system. And they pay their teachers more. Put all of that together and you have had private school fee inflation of two, three, four, five times the level of inflation at large.’

Will other schools follow Milton Abbey’s lead and cut their fees?

An interesting response from Scotland in the The Independent:

In her price on independent schools (25 February) Rosie Millard makes the all-too-common mistake of picking the biggest number she can find and crafting a lively narrative around it.

The majority of pupils who attend independent school, at least in Scotland, are day pupils who live locally. Annual fees, for those who do pay full fees, are well below £10,000 – not the £30K figure quoted, which is more than any full boarding experience in Scotland would cost.

On top of that, the charity law in Scotland requires means-tested financial assistance for pupils who wish to access the education of independent schools but require fee assistance. The sum of that assistance is well above £30m annually, with bursaries ranging up to 100 per cent.

All of which is why the landscape, seen from here, is a lot more diverse and welcoming than Rosie Millard sees.

John Edward, Director  Scottish Council of Independent Schools, Edinburgh

Stillness – what’s wrong with chapel?

One of the mini-essays I’m planning is a profile on Anthony Seldon. Is he our generation’s Thomas Arnold? One thing is for certain: there is no man in independent education today who is better at dominating the headlines.

Yesterday, he was promoting his Conference on Mindfulness by commenting on stillness in schools:

He said that the decline of old fashioned religious assemblies had robbed many pupils of the ability to “reflect during the school day” just as large numbers of children faced unprecedented levels of stress.

Not a bad idea in theory, but it left me thinking: what was wrong with chapel?

The Independent Curriculum

I have been following the Independent Curriculum (or, to give it its full title, the “IC Programmes for Learning”) for a number of years now. Its parent company, Galore Park, have done prep schools a good service by publishing traditional, knowledge-rich text books (including the 1905 Classic Our Island Story) written by excellent independent school teachers like Theo Zinn. Hats off to them.

All of which makes their sponsorship of the Independent Curriculum the more surprising. The IC pays lip-service to knowledge (it “introduces Knowledge Strands alongside cross-curricular Learning Skills to ensure your pupils have the canon of knowledge required from a rigorous, academic education”) but its essence repudiates traditional knowledge-based education at every turn.

The principles outlined in its brochure (available here) are characteristically, if not deliberately, anti-liberal education. You can read it for yourself, but here are just a few highlights:

1) The false dichotomy between knowledge and skills.

“For education to be relevant and effective for the future, it demands a curriculum which not only imparts knowledge but affords learners the opportunity to discover it for themselves, to scrutinise it, to apply it within creative, problem-solving situations and then debate, discuss and communicate it to others.”

2) The invocation of alarmist, irrelevant scenarios to justify educational change.

“But the world is changing – and fast. The perceived wisdom of past generations is no longer sufficient. The pace of technological advancement, the globalised marketplace in which we must all now compete, the depletion of the world’s natural resources, and the everpresent [sic] threats from global warming call for skills beyond literacy, numeracy and knowledge retention. We need innovative, intellectually curious, revolutionary thinkers leaving school with their creativity and courage still intact.”

If the educational philosophy is fluffy, perhaps the content of the curriculums is more rigorous? Alas not.

For evidence, have a read of their suggested Year 4 Curriculum. It is structured so that the learning (Discovering) is in the column to the left and the associated skills (Applying and Communicating) are in the middle and right hand column. Little indication is given to recommended timings on each section so let us suppose that we divide the columns equally. At the most, then, pupils are spending only ½ of their time actually learning the story of the past; the other two thirds are spent doing activities like “imagine a day at a Roman School” or “put together a PowerPoint slide on a typical Roman school day.” This is typical “project-based learning”: a well-meaning suggestion that is rarely an effective use of time because pupils spend their time thinking more about PowerPoint design than they do about Rome and because pupils are left making a project with very shallow knowledge. When you realise that many of the suggestions in the Discovery section are covert projects (“Research what a Roman home would look like”), one is left with the impression that if this curriculum was implemented, very little history would end up being committed to memory each year.

The brain is rarely riper than in Year 4 for soaking up oodles of History knowledge: a typical Temple Grove pupil in the middle of the nineteenth century was reading Thomas Carlyle by the end of Year 5. It is not out of cruelty that liberal educators would bid the child to put down his Pritt Stick; there are plenty of other times in a child’s day – e.g. at home or in Design and Art class – when they would actively encourage it. Liberal educators asset knowledge instead of projects because the reverse leads to the waste a 9 year old’s precious History lessons with thoughts and activities not related to the learning of History.