"Boarding schools are accused of doing nothing for social mobility - in fact it is quite the opposite"

Posted on: 26 Aug 2016
Posted by: Ian Davenport

Ian Davenport, chief executive of the SpringBoard Bursary Foundation, says independent school bursaries are key to social mobility and he is committed to seeing them grow further.

Earlier this week, as the Olympic Games ended, the press began poring over what types of school our athletes attended.

We have also seen recent articles about the new government’s overt desire for society to become more egalitarian and less exclusive. We have read about companies’ intentions to ask prospective candidates if their parents own their own houses, and we have noted yet more negative journalism about the disproportionate number of independent school educated people in public life.

At the heart of these articles is a perception of social and economic advantage and disadvantage. As is so often the case, exaggerated headlines are used to draw in the reader. Former MP Matthew Parris's invitation to his newspaper column readers to sneer at Etonians is far from unique and adds nothing to the debate.

As an experienced writer he is well aware that for many people Eton represents all private schools and for most, private schools are synonymous with boarding schools. Eton, as so often is the case, is used deliberately as the stereotypical exemplar. It is lazy but none the less effective journalism.

The underlying thesis, though, is a serious one.

Boarding schools are continually branded too elitist, too detached and too influential. They are accused of doing nothing for social mobility - in fact it is quite the opposite.

This view certainly appears to be the subtext of Theresa May’s new agenda. She said outside Downing Street: "The government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours." We, as a sector, ignore her change of emphasis at our peril.

Behind the scenes I am often involved in the debate about boarding schools and their role in encouraging social mobility. It is correct to say only 7% of pupils are educated privately; it is a matter of fact that the higher echelons of the judiciary, politics and the civil service are dominated by those who have gone to private school, but I feel there is a nascent argument which if raised thoughtfully cannot be denied.

The boarding school sector is starting to punch above its weight in providing opportunities for social mobility and of course I refer to SpringBoard. If we are successful, the headlines in future years should reflect the number of independent school children who have benefited from life transforming bursaries, and subsequently gone on to become influential policy makers.

This argument that schools can offer life transforming opportunities and engage strongly with social mobility is one with which all independent and boarding schools must engage.

Results of an independent impact assessment programme of our work by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) have been hugely positive; we are also all aware that our particular model allows boarding schools to reach into communities not accessed hitherto.

Here I refer to the work we do with our partners e.g. IntoUniversity, Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy, Mind.world and many Local Authority Virtual schools. In addition boarding schools are playing an active role in offering places to Looked After Children, something about which we can feel very proud.

In her speech from the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister highlighted the difficulties of low income families; the average level of family income of a SpringBoard family is less than £20,000. It is impossible to deny the sector is not aspiring to create a more balanced educational approach.

She highlighted disadvantaged groups such as minorities and boys from white working class areas. SpringBoard, and therefore, by definition, the boarding sector, is working to address these problems.

Continually I hear from naysayers that bursaries are only one small and insignificant drop in the ocean; how can we possibly claim we are helping social mobility? Well, the 'ripple' effect of that small drop has been profound. Boarding schools are starting to box well above their weight. It is essential that independent schools and particularly boarding schools explore ways of being seen as relevant in the social mobility debate.

Our ambition is to grow until SpringBoard students comprise 5% of the domestic boarding market.

We will receive the next instalment of the NFER impact assessment in October. I have no doubt it will provide even more compelling arguments about the ability of boarding schools to engage with the social mobility debate.

Through SpringBoard, independent and boarding schools can feel they have embraced and engaged with one of the most significant social debates, thus demonstrating their relevance.

Studio Portrait

About Ian Davenport

Ian Davenport is chief executive of the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation, which transforms the lives of disadvantaged children through full bursaries at state and independent boarding schools.