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It’s quite common for young people to want a change of scene after GCSEs and some may choose to move to a school where they can board for their last two years. We visit many schools where there are more boarders in the sixth form than lower down the school – largely because 16- to 18-year-olds are keen to concentrate on their studies, socialise with their friends in their spare time and get a taste of living away from home prior to university.

Sixth-form boarders generally have their own study bedrooms in separate accommodation with well-equipped kitchens (Ocado will deliver to boarding schools!), washing machines, even yoga studios. At Westonbirt School, where over three-quarters of sixth formers board, one told us, ‘There aren’t so many distractions; it helps us stay focused on our studies.’

Today’s boarding schools pride themselves on helping students become more independent before university. At Heathfield, an all-girls’ boarding school in Ascot, Berkshire, girls in the upper sixth live in their own bungalow on site, while Burford School, a co-ed state boarding school in Oxfordshire, has created a flat within the boarding house for a group of sixth-form girls – to get them ready for the university years. At Rendcomb School in Gloucestershire, groups of sixth formers take turns to stay for five days in the school flat in the nearby village. They are given housekeeping money and (apart from lunch at school) must manage this and the chores. Apparently sometimes it runs like clockwork, sometimes ‘mummies deliver food parcels and help clean up at the end’.

Sixth form boarding - what are the pros?

One plus of a move to sixth form boarding is that it is almost always the young person’s own decision. Parents may also feel that it’s a positive choice that will help their child learn to live independently and, as a side benefit, reduce some of the family conflict that teenage years often bring (at least during term time). However, if your son or daughter hasn’t boarded before it’s important that they understand the realities of living in a school, rather than at home.

…and the realities?

Even in the sixth form it’s unlikely that your son or daughter will enjoy the same freedoms they have at home. Parents and children will be expected to agree to and abide by the school’s policies on everything from uniform, energy drinks, alcohol to PDAs (public displays of affection – kissing, holding hands, etc), mobile devices and random drugs testing. These policies (all of which will be on the school’s website) have been drawn up to ensure not just your child but the whole boarding community is safe. You should have a frank discussion with your child to ensure you are both clear what the school’s rules mean they can and cannot do. If he or she is accustomed to a more liberal domestic arrangements, there needs to be agreement that the school’s regime will be respected.

Rules and regulations

Some schools allow 18-year-olds to visit ‘approved’ pubs or restaurants in the nearest town, but such freedoms are a privilege instantly rescinded if abused. Others – perhaps in more rural areas – have a sixth-form bar where alcohol is dispensed under supervision and always with parents’ consent. What happens under the radar is, inevitably, another matter – as it often is at home.

Rules about what happens on school premises are fair enough, but it’s a much greyer area when full boarders attend private parties at, for instance, a day pupil’s house. Parental permission must be obtained to attend this kind of event, but responsibility for policing pupils’ behaviour under these circumstances cannot be the school’s

Relationships between pupils at boarding schools are a concern for parents and, we imagine, a chronic headache for staff – especially at co-ed full-boarding establishments. At most schools ‘intimate or explicit sexual relations’ are classed as ‘misconduct’ that can lead to suspension or expulsion. Some schools ban any public display of affection; some don’t. However, as with drink and drugs, banning sex doesn’t mean it won’t happen. If your daughter is joining a boys’ school with a co-ed sixth form it’s important to get a feeling for how well this transition is managed and how actively gender relations are monitored.

Being the newbie

Finally, we would advise asking how many new boarders join the school in the sixth form. While schools will always do their best to integrate new pupils it can be difficult if your child is one of just a few new faces joining established social groups.

You should feel able to raise questions and discuss concerns about this or any other matter with the school. Talking to parents with older children at the school is also a good idea if you want to find out just how intimate the relationship is between policy and reality. The ‘Pastoral care, well-being and discipline’ section of our reviews covers these issues.

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