I am done with apple-picking now

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SecEd columnist Hilary Moriarty steps down this summer after eight years working at the heart of the boarding school community. She gives her farewell thoughts, including on the future of boarding education.

I have long loved Robert Frost’s poem in which he tells us “I am done with apple-picking now”. Now, leaving the post of national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and the State Boarding Schools’ Association (SBSA) after eight years, I know what he meant.

I know exactly what Frost means about feeling the rungs of the ladder under his instep still – I see a headline about boarding, and my hand reaches for a pen – or an iPad – and I’m already composing the response in my head, only now it’s someone else’s turn to write it.

Frost remembers the feel of the fruit in his hand – and I can hear voices down the phone – “What should I do about...” “I have a member of staff who...” 

Most often: “I wonder if you can help me please...” It has been a privilege to be in a position to help, and I have enjoyed every contact, although my catchphrase quickly became: “Stamped on my forehead it says ‘I am not a lawyer’.”

Most of my callers were quite happy about that, nor did many of them seek “do this and don’t do that” explicit instruction. What they wanted was a reasonably experienced and thoughtful listening ear, someone against whom to bounce ideas/anxieties/possibilities and proposals.

Almost always, they knew the answers before they asked the questions. Touching base with an external voice, a one-time practitioner was just confirmation.

It was not surprising that the calls increased when the 2002 National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools were reduced from 52 (294 bullet points) to 20 (64 bullet points) in 2011. I was part of the team which reduced them, and there was much support for the reduction, the removal of the weight of prescriptive detail.

But less prescription opens the door to more discretion and, possibly, less consistency. When the 20 arrived, a lawyer predicted there would be more litigation: heads and inspectors toe-to-toe over the distance between beds!

Since inspection reports must be good if a school wants to be able to market itself for the next three years, these judgements are important, even vital. And if you suspect it comes down to a matter of opinion, well, wouldn’t you fight it? I was sorry to see the 294 explicit statements go, but I suspect I was in a minority.

In the bonfire of the bullet points, an important survivor was 15.1. This standard demands that schools pay attention to the professional development of their boarding staff. It is as vital as professional development to improve classroom practice. We have long said that working in boarding is no longer a job for a well-meaning amateur. And BSA provides that training. In my eight years, we have increased the day seminars four-fold, now up to 60 a year and growing, as new topics – cyber-bullying, emotional needs – come into focus.

Serious staff in boarding who may see boarding schools as their career choice, embark on the BSA Certificate in Boarding Education. Two years of study, two major pieces of written work, assessment and accreditation by Roehampton University – this is the gold standard in boarding practice. May the day come when every head of a boarding school has this qualification and governors expect no less. With almost 300 people a year on these courses, I live in hope – as, quite possibly, Frost hoped for a good apple harvest next year, even as he packed this year’s crop in boxes in the loft.

Apart from the INSET delivered by BSA staff in individual schools as required and on demand, the five residential conferences every year provide stimulation and (I hope) inspiration for staff attending. On average, seven speakers at five conferences for eight years – did we really source that many speakers with (honestly) more stars than turkeys? 

Neuroscientist Dr Sarah Jayne Blakemore, psychologists Dr Michael Carr Gregg brought from Australia, and Dr Chris Thurber brought from America.

Dr Stephen Winkley, head of Uppingham and Rossall, Rachel Johnson, editor of The Lady, Jim Hawkins, head of Harrow, John Baugh, head of The Dragon School, Melvyn Roffe, principal of Wymondham College – these were certainly some of the stars.

What did I learn about finding speakers? Look out for good writers, always try to hear them before they speak for you, do not accept substitutes no matter how highly recommended, and the future of boarding probably belongs to psychologists. 

How do people tick? How can we heal the wounded, or the worried who could be more well, because a boarder is ours 24/7, semi-detached from the people who love him or her, and at all levels and at all times, we need to do this well, and better.

All of this is not to mention the delights of speaking at conferences in America and Australia, and in Hong Kong and China, both for and about boarding. British schools face increasing competition from the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where governments positively welcome international students – come to school! University! Work! Live – come on in! They have the advantage of space, but the British government’s schizophrenic attitude to students, even child students, high-value and low-risk, does us no favours at all.

And then there is the SBSA, for whom my most important work has been at the interface between its members and government. The previous government and this one have been united only in supporting training for boarding staff and wanting more admissions for children on the edge of care. 

About investing in the boarding accommodation of the schools themselves, not so much unity: the Labour government opened occasional windows of opportunity for funding bids, with obvious winners and losers. But the coalition government has simply said “There is no money”. The conversations continue – and look, there’s an election around the corner.

Meanwhile, in the year when I step away from all this, and the grim feeling of vicarious but personal responsibility every time there’s a negative headline about a member school, my husband and I will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. In the short eight years I have been in post at BSA, my six grandchildren have come into the world. There comes a time when Frost and I might agree: there is more to life than apple-picking.

  • Hilary Moriarty retires from the position of national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association and the State Boarding Schools’ Association in August.


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