What is school for – and how do single-sex boarding schools reinforce its purpose? – Jane Gandee, Headmistress of St Swithun’s School

25 May 2016

Winston Churchill: The only time my education was interrupted was while I was at school.

St-Swithuns 2015 PAGE pupils and building

St Swithun’s School

I sometimes wonder about the real point of school as I stuff my own children into their school uniforms and hustle them out of the door – is it so that tired parents can have a rest?

I also wonder about it when I listen to the secretary of state for education, whoever that might currently be, putting forward another idea poached from some far-flung outpost of world education: Singapore, Finland, the charter schools of North America – is school simply a means to compete with our international neighbours?

Similarly, I ponder its purpose when watching plays, concerts and sports matches in my own school. Is school simply a showcase for pupils’ talents?

Not long ago I asked Year 6 girls what life would be like were schools not to exist. They said “we wouldn’t have any friends” and “we wouldn’t know how to get on with other people” and then “we would be lonely” and “we would be bored” plus “we wouldn’t be able to play sport or be in plays”. “We wouldn’t learn anything” also featured. So for children, school is all about relationships and education whether in the classroom or beyond.

The government, on the other hand, tends to have a more utilitarian view of school. It focuses on good academic results and preparing learners for the world of work often justifying this by quoting the CBI as despairing that school leavers don’t have the skills required by employers. As far as I am concerned, spending the best part of 14 years being prepared for a world of work that might have changed by the time you reach it is a cheerless proposition.

So what is school for and how do single-sex boarding schools in particular reinforce its purpose? When I regain my sense of humour, having dispatched my own children to school, I like to think of the skills and attitudes developed there as pebbles dropped into a still pond. The effects ripple through children’s lives long after they have gone through the school gate for the last time. School should give children resources that they won’t necessarily need or know they possess until much later in life. At times of great joy or grief the spiritual resources and resilience acquired at school stand many adults in good stead and provide a frame of reference to make sense of life .

What is more, school is perhaps the one genuine community remaining that is open to all children. It seeks therefore, as all communities do, to create a sense of responsibility and of a greater good which outweighs individual preoccupations. It seeks to exemplify the ideals of giving without asking for anything in return and of forgiveness. And if this sounds worthy and perhaps a little dull it shouldn’t – where there is forgiveness and the possibility of a second chance there is also risk-taking safe in the knowledge that it doesn’t matter if things don’t work first time. Where there is a sense of responsibility towards others there is great potential for kindness. Surely kindness is one of the greatest qualities one would wish for in all circumstances.

Boarding schools with their structure of smaller communities in the form of boarding houses offer the ideal opportunity for these values to take root and to be seen working in practice.

For me one further characteristic of a successful school is the extent to which individual pupils are really known by their teachers and house staff. It is too easy for quiet pupils to slip through their school days with barely a ripple, their aspirations unheard. Yet as educators we have a moral duty to notice all our pupils as they pass through our hands. Knowing one another is the glue which binds together a fully functioning school community.

At a boarding school there is typically more time and space for teachers to engage with these ‘invisible’ pupils – in the lunch queue, on the touchline, during the interval of a concert, at breakfast, after prep. There is time to ask them about their lives and really listen to the answer. There is time to offer individual help and small enough numbers in class for teachers to notice if pupils are not themselves. Pupils gradually learn what being themselves means, adopting the values and attitudes that sit most comfortably with them.

Establishing your place in the world and finding your own voice needs time and space. It is not always an easy process for young people and I believe that both boys and girls benefit from the emotional space available at single-sex schools. Without the background ‘noise’ generated by the presence of the opposite sex young people can develop into who they want to be. Tired ideas about male and female roles and behaviour can be left outside the school gates giving modern pupils the opportunity to listen to their inner voice.

It is true that modern British society has forgotten the importance of being known, but perhaps if we can listen to all the voices in our schools, however quiet, we can create a new generation of young people who will prioritise reaching out to others above the sound of their own voices.

St Swithun’s School, Hampshire