Learning curve

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 October, 2008, 12:00am


There is nothing frugal about the gothic mansion erected in 1798 for Lord Carrington in the lush woods of Bucking- hamshire. The majestic building is set among 65 hectares of sprawling land and is flanked by a silvery lake.

Inside, its inhabitants receive an education ranked as one of the best in Europe. Even the weekly fare that includes eggs Florentine, hoi sin chicken and lemon meringue pie is more of an exercise in indulgence than austerity.

The Wycombe Abbey School in Buckinghamshire is among the 700 schools offering boarding places in Britain where spartan traditions are out and luxury is in.

A concerted attempt is being made to banish to the history books tales of cold showers, draughty dormitories, Dickensian chores and lumpy food, which have long been synonymous with Britain's boarding schools.

Where, in the past, sleeping conditions were cramped, today there are en-suite facilities. Brutal morning runs in the freezing sleet and rain have been replaced by cosy sessions in front of a plasma television or Sony PlayStation.

For Queen Ethelburga's College in York, luxury runs to a sun-bed area, pool table, electric shoe shine and sauna. You can even bring your horse for free.

But it is not all jolly hockey sticks for the pupils. Classes being offered include philanthropy, 'citizenship' and social responsibility. Charitable causes are being championed. Trees are being planted.

'Boarding has changed remarkably in the past 20 to 30 years,' said Melvyn Roffe, chairman of the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA).

'For some reason people's perceptions generally are that boarding schools have defied the way the rest of the world has moved on ... our message is that boarding has changed.'

The BSA has mounted a public relations offensive in an attempt to get the message across. This comes against the backdrop of widespread investment in both state and independent boarding schools.

Multimillion-pound refurbishments have been under way to meet parents' expectations that their offspring receive five-star treatment in return for rising fees. Gone are the days when children were packed off for a harsh lesson in character-building. Today, parents want to see a bang for their buck.

On average, parents are parting with more than #20,000 (HK$275,800) annually to keep their child in boarding school education, an increase of 86 per cent since 1997. According to Halifax Financial Services, this outstrips inflation by nearly three times.

Over the same period, the number of boarders has been declining. In January, a total of 67,046 pupils were full-time boarders, compared with 69,525 in early 2000. For the decade until 2007, numbers fell by 14 per cent.

Significant financial challenges still lie ahead, not just for boarding schools but for the British independent education sector, which accounts for 671,000 children in about 2,600 fee-paying schools.

Fees at independent schools overall have risen by about 40 per cent in the past five years to an average of #10,239, according to Halifax.

As the credit crunch begins to bite in Britain, parents are coming under intense fee pressure.

This academic year, numbers were up 0.8 per cent at independent schools. According to figures from the Independent Schools Council, total numbers in 2008 (more than 500,000 students) reached an all-time record.

Anecdotal evidence suggests parents are beginning to feel the fee squeeze, however. A record number of pupils, for example, applied for the 11-plus entrance test to gain admission to grammar schools.

Mylene Curtis, managing director of Fleet Tutors, which coaches children for the exams, explains: 'If there is a very good grammar school in your neighbourhood, as well as a private school, you may decide in this environment it's worth putting in the effort to get that grammar school place.'

This summer has also seen a number of independent schools close. Two girls' boarding schools - Wispers School in Surrey and Wentworth College in Bournemouth - shut their gates recently, the former citing financial pressures.

Jonathan Cook, general secretary of the Independent Schools' Bursars Association, believes, however, that these casualties may have been in the pipeline for some time.

'While I don't wish to downplay the economic downturn ... the writing was probably on the wall nine to 10 months ago,' he says.

Mr Cook says any drop in numbers may not surface until later next year, stressing that parents traditionally strive to maintain their child's education despite financial pressures.

'After a mortgage, the child's education is the next priority in a parent's life. Yes, there will be pain. Yes, they may be asking for help,' he says.

As the financial crunch began to hit families, the outlay for education this year had already been made. Only by next September is there likely to be a clearer picture of how hard independent schools have been hit by the credit crunch as the number of students accepting places emerges.

BSA national director Hilary Moriarty explains: 'In a way, it has come so late, there may be little impact in this academic year. The one to worry about is September 2009. If parents are really squeezed, they may feel they have a year to get something different for next year sorted out.''

At the same time, independent schools are under increased pressure to justify the #100 million annual tax breaks they receive due to their charitable status.

The pressure is on to prove how the benefits they are providing in educating the elite extend to the public at large.

An overhaul of charities' legislation in Britain has put the burden on these schools to prove their worth. The Charities Act 2006 requires independent schools to show that their aims are serving the public benefit - this is likely to lead to a greater opening of their doors to poorer students.

A Charity Commission has been set up to oversee the public benefit requirement. Draft guidance on what is expected of the schools was published in March, with a final version expected towards the end of the year. The burden is on schools to show how they benefit everyone, including those who cannot afford their fees.

Many schools are still in the dark as to what this actually means. Research carried out by Zurich, which provides insurance to schools, suggests that understanding of the public benefit test is relatively low.

The survey, published last month, shows that, of more than 100 heads and bursars of private schools, almost one in five was unclear how they should prove their public benefit.

Tom Shewry, the head of education at Zurich explains: 'Schools are not in the dark about the public benefit test per se. However, clearly it will mean different things for different schools and it is the extent of what needs to be done to retain charitable status that many schools lack confidence in.'

Six per cent said they had looked at sponsoring a city academy; nearly half said they would look at increasing the availability of bursaries; more than 25 per cent said they would consider opening lessons up to local state schools.

Many already offer the use of their facilities, such as sports grounds and halls, to state schools and the local community.

As Mr Shewry notes, half of the respondents said they anticipated significant challenges in funding any additional means-tested bursaries.

'Certain schools in the more mid-range fee bands cannot rely as much on an ability [of parents] to accommodate significant [or even slight] increases in fees that some of their larger or more established counterparts might,' he stresses.

The study revealed that around one in 10 school heads believe they will need to increase fees further to fund measures to allow them to prove their charitable status.

The BSA's Ms Moriarty says some schools may struggle: 'Independent schools which are charities are very different from each other - for every one which has large funds from ancient endowments, there will be two others which just about break even every year, and do not have large reserves to dispose of.'

Schools which cannot prove a public benefit risk seizure of their assets, such as buildings and grounds, and seeing them transferred to another educational charity.

The BSA's Mr Roffe is undeterred. 'I think schools are taking it in their stride,' he says. 'Most are contributing a fair deal in terms of public benefit. It's very much part of the texture of boarding school life these days.'

In the meantime, the association's campaign to convince the Tom Brown's Schooldays sceptics continues. A national open day is planned for next summer to allow people to see for themselves. 'People who walk through our doors are astonished at how boarding has moved on,' Mr Roffe insists.