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Roots and wings

Ian Davenport, head of Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation, tells SN about the charity’s commitment to transforming lives of disadvantaged children within our boarding schools

“There are two gifts we can give our children, the first is roots, the second is wings.” quotes Ian Davenport, head of the UK’s largest boarding school bursary charity, Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation. It is these life-transforming gifts that the foundation is committed to offering disadvantaged and vulnerable children through its fully-funded boarding school places. The aim: to reduce educational inequality and increase social mobility around the country. “Our schools give them wings; we give them wings.”

Ian Davenport with Springboard pupils

The charity is supporting 500 children in around 100 state and independent boarding schools, but plans to double its reach by 2023. Ambitious, perhaps, but things have come a long way since 2012 when Davenport started The SpringBoard Bursary Foundation, placing 17 children in nine schools. Its merger in 2017 with long-standing grant-maker Royal National Children’s Foundation ushered in what Davenport describes as a “big-picture charity”.

Originally, Royal SpringBoard was inspired by Rugby School’s hugely successful bursary programme, which then headmaster Patrick Derham, helped set up in 2003. Now head of Westminster, Derham first met Davenport in 1992, when the latter joined him at Radley College as Head of Economics and a Housemaster, a role he kept for 12 years.

Previously, he had packed in his job as a derivatives trader with Morgan Stanley to move into teaching. “I always wanted to teach,” says Davenport. “I thought if I go off and earn lots of money and not massively enjoy it, that might be better than not earning any money and really enjoying it, but that was the wrong decision. Come the age of 30 I thought if I don’t make the leap now, I never will.”

Like Derham, he moved on from Radley to become a headmaster, doing an eight-year stint at Blundell’s in Devon from 2004. Both bursary children themselves – Davenport at Bloxham School, Derham at Pangbourne College – the pair always believed passionately in the holistic boarding experience to transform the lives of those less fortunate. Derham was looking for someone to roll out the Rugby programme nationally and Davenport seemed the ideal candidate. “Given I follow Alice in Wonderland exclusively, which is, if you don’t explore, you’ll never discover, I gave it a go and here we are,” explains Davenport.

There are many bursary charities in the UK, but none quite like Royal SpringBoard with its partner-based model. “Patrick wanted to build a model that answered the
question that the vast majority of independent school headmasters had been trying to answer, and that is: how do you find genuinely deserving
children for your bursary programme and look after them in the best possible way? He came to the conclusion that the best way was to work through community groups who were already involved in local areas where these children came from and build relationships with them.”

Marlborough College, one of the accredited schools

“Relationship” is the key word here. “The critical bit, which is why we have a very high retention rate – well over 90 per cent – is that we have a ‘whole child’ agenda,” explains Davenport. “We get to know the children, we build a relationship with the family, with a community group, the school, we link that all together. We then build the relationship going forward with an alumni programme.”

Wraparound pastoral care, including holidays, is at the heart of what Royal SpringBoard does – and no pupil gets dropped after school, or if things don’t work out. “There are lots of complexities that might emerge from having someone from, say, Peckham start at Marlborough or Oundle or wherever. But most get there in the end. For those that don’t last the course of the school, we believe we must play a part in helping them to wherever they go next – we start the process in partnership with the child and the school and we feel morally obliged to carry that on.”

To ensure this happens, Royal SpringBoard has an independently evaluated impact assessment process, which monitors the children to the age of 25. And it’s also building an alumni network, explains Davenport, to help with its vision of creating the “ripple effect”: the idea being that Royal SpringBoard’s work not only positively influences each individual child, but also impacts the lives of their families and wider neighbourhood. “One of the critical things with the Royal SpringBoard model is that the children go back to their local communities and act as ambassadors. That’s what it’s all about. The most powerful way to influence change is if you see somebody you know influencing change.”

“…the children go back to their local communities and act as ambassadors. That’s what it’s all about. The most powerful way to influence change is if you see somebody you know influencing change.”

“The best example would be Yuriel Kpalobi – he came from Tottenham, became head boy of Millfield School. He very strongly believes he must give something back, which he does. And there’s no question that he has a profound influence. I picked him out, but there are any number of those success stories.” In this way, each individual school can play a part in the wider engagement of social mobility.

Shining example, Yuriel Kpadobi, head boy of Millfield

And the ripple effect works in reverse, too, with Royal SpringBoard pupils enriching the lives of their boarding school peers in return. “Royal SpringBoard children have got something about them,” says Davenport. “They’ve got leadership skills, they’re resilient, they’re real role models. They have a profound effect on those around them as they say, ‘You know what, you can do something with your life and this is my background, I’m really proud of my background, why would I not be?’ But also, ‘I’ve been blessed to be given this opportunity and I’m going to make the most of it.’ That infectious enthusiasm resonates around any community and the more independent schools have an understanding of societal issues the better. And they all want to.”

It’s what today’s parents want for their children, too, believes Davenport. “Parents want schools to be more open and accessible. Middle-class people more and more tend to be highlighting what they don’t like about independent schools, which is the perceived elitism, which a lot of them actually aren’t. Royal SpringBoard has definitely benefited from that.”

The charity covers the length and breadth of the country with major partnership centres in London, Nottingham, Leicester, Liverpool and Chester, as well as doing a lot of work in coastal towns due to a high level of deprivation. These centres, alongside schools and local governments and other charities, help Royal SpringBoard identify who would benefit most from a boarding school environment and the transformational effect of its work.

Every boarding school the charity partners with, has to go through a painstaking accreditation process. “They’ve got to be compliant, got to be safe and have a vibrant boarding environment; the head has to really get it and not just pay lip service to the concept; they have to commit to regular training, to regularly engaging. The schools, without exception, are fantastic; I’m an unapologetic advocate.”

For the most part, fees are fully funded by the schools, with Royal SpringBoard making contributions where necessary.

Matching school to child is key to Royal SpringBoard’s success, and Davenport plays an integral part in this, drawing on his experience as a headmaster, housemaster and governor. There are no shortcuts, he says: “We get to know the child well, we interview them personally, we give them an academic assessment (not pass or fail) just to find the right level. We get a report from their schools, from their parents. We make sure we never recommend a school where they won’t academically thrive.” 

Given the ongoing backlash against private schools, one of the attractions of Royal SpringBoard, Davenport notes, “is that we are about boarding, so there’s no distinction between independent and state. There are living saints in all of these schools and it’s fantastic that we can collectively build a coherent theme.”

Finding such a theme, to prove their benefit to the public and maintain their charitable status, is something that independent schools have been struggling with. They are, Davenport says, “slightly defensive about this, and right to be so as there are an enormous amount of interactions between independent schools and the local community, most often through state schools. They undoubtedly need to work at building closer links with public policy issues, children on free school meals and Looked After Children. But also really drive forward the extraordinarily interesting things from a resource perspective and how can they be translated to the wider sector: the work they are doing on AI robotics; how can we make that a broader social engagement – that hinterland.”

One of the many challenges facing boarding schools, believes Davenport, is “to show how they’re relevant in ten years’ time. There are all sorts of economic forces that are acting against that at the moment, teachers’ pensions and other difficulties. Fees are extremely high and whichever way you look at it, that can’t go on.”

On the upside, there are many more international students today , which Davenport thinks is fantastic. “If everybody can leave school with a friend who lives overseas, that’s clearly got to be an important life enhancement.”

And life enhancement is what Davenport is all about: “I won’t ever claim that Royal SpringBoard is changing the world but we are among a number of forces that are manifestly leaving the world a little bit better than it was, with the independent sector really wanting to make a difference.”


Find out more on Springboard’s website

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