My Virtual School – a boarding school, not a school with boarding. 19.5.2020

19 May 2020. A colleague sent me his response to my last post. A debate worth having. Here are his thoughts.

‘Like a lot of people, I’m rather enjoying some aspects of life in lockdown. My academic teaching seems to be going well – boys are making great progress, on the whole, although life can be tough if they are in the wrong time zone; or are at home alone because their single parent is still going out to work; or they are just not a particularly self-motivated boy and need the structures of daily life at Radley to help them keep on top of their workload. Still, I’m finished every day by 6.30pm at the latest, which is unheard of in more normal times.

I’m finding I have more time for living. I’m often guilty when I am physically at school of manufacturing work to fill the gaps – if I’m there, I feel I should be working. At home I’m more likely, if I have half an hour free, to go and do some gardening (finally, I’ve got on top of the weeds in the garden); chat to the children between their online school experiences; cook lunch; read a book. Yet I’m still managing to teach, including some entertaining individual music lessons across multiple timezones and in some surprising places.

But I am really worried about the education of our boys, even so. Dons are working hard, boys are progressing through their subject syllabuses; but that has only ever been part of what we do at Radley. The whole justification for the full boarding experience (what former Warden, Angus McPhail, called ‘a boarding school, not a school with boarding’) is that it provides time for the boys to do other things together. Sometimes this has even been quantified as 30% of a don’s commitment – whether that be sport, music, drama, clubs, or social activities like form evenings or Caledonian Society.

When I see colleagues finished for the day at 3.00pm, out for a walk with their families,  I am glad for them; but I worry about where that time has come from. Education is about much more than sitting in a classroom, physical or virtual; and boys are missing out on so much of that education at the moment. They can attend choir rehearsals, of a kind, and record individual parts for a choir piece in their lonely bedrooms, but they can’t sing together; they can learn notes and lines for the musical this November, but they can’t act together; they can do solo fitness efforts and even compete on Strava, but they can’t be a team; they can make paper planes and film them for a competition, but they can’t learn the real value of leadership out in a dark wood at midnight on a CCF Field Weekend.

Should we bring the boys back to Radley? Yes, there will be risks; but there are always risks. COVID-19 has been yet another reminder that humans are bad at assessing risk; we tend to underestimate risks which are familiar and which we feel we can control, like driving, and overestimate risks which are unfamiliar and out of our control, like flying in an airliner, even though the latter is many times safer. COVID-19 is the same; the government’s campaign message has been so successful it has left us scared of our own shadows.

Meanwhile, teachers are excoriated in the press because the teaching unions are asking for schools to be ‘completely safe’ before they reopen. They don’t represent me, and I’ve decided the time has come to quit my union when my subscription runs out, and go for legal insurance instead.

No school is ever completely safe. Life is not completely safe. In my time teaching at Radley, boys have been run over outside the school crossing the road from the bus, but we don’t ban them from travelling into Oxford, all the same. Boys are injured playing rugby under supervision, or kicking a football around on the pitches after prep.’

So many contradictions in our lives at the moment, and so many opinions and options. We may be locked down, but our minds and speech are still free.

© Clare Sargent