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Boarding schools hold new appeal for modern families

King’s Hospital: 350th anniversary, bullying allegations and growing numbers of boarders

Mark Ronan, the new headmaster of King’s Hospital school in Dublin. Photograph: Chris Bellew/ Fennells
Daniel Ohoka, Ella Giles, Sofia-Rose Deeleman and Andreï Zündell, members of King’s Hospital School chapel choir, at a service in St Patrick’s Cathedral to mark the school’s 350th anniversary. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Not so long ago boarding schools were in steady decline. The shift in how society values family life, along with the economic downturn, all played their part in falling enrolments.

Now, the headmaster of The King’s Hospital, a private school in west Dublin, insists boarding holds a new appeal for many modern, two-income parent families.

“For many parents, their work demands that they be more mobile,” says Mark Ronan, the school’s newly appointed headmaster.

“So, we can support families to maintain their work life. I think it can help the family dynamic and take away some of the tension.”

Five-day boarding, where pupils board during the week and go home at weekends, is proving more popular, he says.

Pupils have access to extra-curricular activities on the campus during the week without having to be driven everywhere.

Supervised study and strict rules over the use of mobile phones – they can’t be used in public places, during study or after lights out – mean that time spent at home at weekends can be more “positive”.

“Parents don’t have that challenging interaction in the evening. The time can be more positive and takes some of the policing role away from the parent.”

Many parents, however, worry about whether their children will be safe and well supervised while living away from home.

These concerns weren’t helped when King’s Hospital was in the headlines in late 2016.

Sexual assault

The Irish Times reported that An Garda Síochána and Tusla were investigating allegations that a group of boys had been involved in a sexual assault on another boy in one of the school’s dormitories.

Shortly after this, the mother of a 14-year-old girl said she removed her daughter from the school because of alleged intimidation and bullying that worsened after complaints were made to the school.

The school at the time said it investigated all these incidents and took appropriate steps, including informing the relevant authorities.

“Parents will think twice, I fully understand that,” says Ronan, who lives on the campus with his wife, Fiona.

“It [the incident] was not good, but I was reassured by the way the school responded by engaging with the boarding school association to help them review the boarding provision and commit to providing safer and better accommodation.”

He says there are now more staff to supervise and support pupils, while boarding accommodation has been refurbished.

It is now okay to talk about mental health issues and it’s something I feel very strongly about

“My primary responsibility as head is my duty of care to children. Fiona and I are privileged to live in Brooklawn. This is our home. And I want the experience for our boarders to be safe, secure and a positive experience.”

Ronan says the previous school where he was headmaster – Pocklington School near York – was the first boarding school in the UK to receive a national award for its “outstanding mental health and wellbeing provision” for staff and pupils.

“We saw an increase in the number of young people with mental health concerns, particularly around anxiety . . .” he says.

“It is now okay to talk about mental health issues and it’s something I feel very strongly about . . . in my previous role, as a model of good practice, I saw a counsellor on a fortnightly basis for my own supervision . . .

“I talk about accessing that to say that it’s okay. It does not mean there’s anything wrong with you. As much as we might want to do physical exercise to look after our body, we should engage our mental health.”

Pupils at King’s Hospital have access to counsellors and mindfulness support; he says he is encouraged that boys, in particular, are stepping forward to access support.

There is also a peer mentoring scheme, where sixth years support first year students.

Anniversary

In the meantime, King’s Hospital – one of the country’s oldest secondary schools – is gearing up to celebrate its 350th anniversary.

The school, where Jonathan Swift was a governor, was originally founded as The Hospital Free School of King Charles II.

It was based on Dublin’s Queen Street for its first century before moving to Blackhall Place – now headquarters of the Law Society of Ireland – before moving to its current location in Palmerstown, Co Dublin.

While it is a Church of Ireland school, it has grown more diverse over recent years with about 45 per cent of its students from a Catholic or other belief background.

Among its past pupils is Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, while former president Mary McAleese sent her son there.

Private schools like King’s Hospital are often labelled elitist, where past pupils have a disproportionate influence on public life. Boarding, and private schools in general, remain out of reach for most families.

At King’s Hospital, fees for day pupils are €7,190 a year, rising to €14,890 for five-day boarders and €16,795 for seven-day boarders.

“There is a responsibility on independent schools to ensure fees are controlled to ensure access is as wide as possible, and to ensure we have funding to help access for those who cannot afford it,” says Ronan.

It’s not who you are, but how you treat other people that is important

He adds that parents will always seek to invest in their children’s education, such as grinds, with or without private schools.

But there is also, some argue, an equity issue. Unlike in the UK, the Irish taxpayer funds the salaries of most teaching staff.

“There is a historical context for that . . . we’re not the only country that has this model. Australia is similar. I understand that if we did not fund teachers within the private sector, those children would end up in the State sector and lead to additional cost.”

The fact that the Taoiseach is a former pupil, he says, is a source of pride for the school, not just because of the position he holds, but in how he reflects a “modern, outward-looking country”.

“I’ve been really impressed by him . . . He is a positive reflection on where Ireland is as a society now and how inclusive it is . . . It’s not who you are, but how you treat other people that is important. We shouldn’t be defined by our gender, skin colour or sexuality.”

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