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A River Cottage education

In this week’s cook-in we tackle two troubling questions: How will we ever change our education system? And: Where is there to go after Gove?

Here is my own whacky idea, which may shock my readers: I suggest we need an Old Etonian to lead us into more boarding! And I think we need one who can cook – I’ll tell you later who I have in mind.

Look, we all should know by now that boarding for the young has to be stopped. If we could achieve this, then we would be left with an enormous resource in terms of schools – both buildings and teachers – and the challenge of getting on-side all those who have previously been making the private boarding system work as efficiently as it has. My suggestion is simple: that the stock of boarding schools be recycled and used as sixth form colleges. At 16, many children might benefit from a couple of years of residential education, especially if the regime at these schools were a wholesome one that acknowledged their separation rather than just keeping them busily avoiding emotions.

At such an age, children are able to draw a real advantage from being in a group of peers rather than in a hierarchical system of younger and older children, which tends to encourage bullying. It might be a relief all round to get some of the 16-year-olds off the streets and away from the invasive culture of consumerism, whether of electronic products most can barely afford or the drink, sex and drugs epidemic, to which we can longer afford to have our youth addicted.

Schools like this do in fact already exist in parts of Europe, although they have not been the focus of much attention so far in Britain, because they do not have the glamour of elitism about them. In rural France, the state provides weekly boarding in departmental capitals for older children to mitigate the problems of distance. Those attending such schools I spoke to appreciated the conviviality of town life and being amongst their peers and also loved to be back on the farm at the weekend.

In Denmark, there are 260 boarding schools spread throughout the small country in which teenagers – boys and girls together – can finish their secondary education. They are known as Efterskole, or ‘after-school’ schools. And here is where our Old Etonian comes in. The community spirited, fish-loving Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is the man for me. Last year, our hero, always reminding me of a P.G Wodehouse character, especially with his catchy name, visited one such school. It was briefly featured on British TV in February as part of a series, wittily called Scandimania. “Hugh lands in Denmark, which the United Nations has declared the ‘happiest country in the world’,” said the programme notes, which described the Efterskole as “a boarding school where teenagers are taught how to be good citizens.” The celebrity chef seemed politely impressed but did not elaborate on how innocent and strange it must have felt to him after his own privileged abandonment.

The Efterskole system is heavily subsidised by government but asks for parental fee contributions. It is based on the educational philosophy of N.F.S. Grundtvig who wanted schools to provide more than simply vocational training. According to the schools’ website:

“Each Efterskole is a self-governing independent institution and they all deal with both the educational and personal development of the students. They embrace a common educational focus on enlightenment for life, general education and democratic citizenship. Freedom of the Efterskole is assured by substantial state subsidies to both schools and students. The Efterskole has something to offer both educationally and socially, because the students live together. It can perhaps be said that the teachers who work at an Efterskole are not entirely ordinary. They are prepared to involve aspects of themselves other than the professional, so that the pupils have a positive relationship to the teachers.”

The Efterskole might provide a useful model for Britain. It goes without saying that entry to any new-style boarding schools would not be based on parental income. British governments would finally have to fall in line with others and provide a per-child subsidy for any form of education outside their immediate control. I would imagine that a selection of foreign entrants could help boost the revenue that government would have to supply. This is roughly how the Danes work it. Alternatively, those who could pay would pay. Such schools could become a kind of public-private partnership that centrist governments seem to favour.

Working these things out would be child’s play, once we allow children to be children and let the “boys in the men who run things” finally come home again.

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