Skip to main content

Cumnor House Sussex, offers different types of boardingIf you’re reading this you’ve probably already decided that boarding might suit your son or daughter. If so the next step is to consider the arrangement that best suits your family. Unlike the old days, when youngsters were packed off to school at the age of 7 or 8 and didn’t see home again until the end of term, today’s boarding schools offer parents a choice of full boarding, weekly boarding, flexi boarding or even a combination of these. For instance, flexi boarders may wish to weekly board during exam times or become full boarders in the sixth form.

Whichever option you choose, there’s no doubt that boarding schools are more skilled than ever at helping their charges settle in and feel at home. They may run taster weekends, get new pupils to start before the rest of the school arrives and appoint buddies and mentors to guide them through the first few weeks and beyond. Pupils are encouraged to keep in regular touch with their parents – and it’s not just a handwritten letter hastily scribbled before church on Sunday mornings either. Children can email, Skype and – if mobile phones are allowed – text or phone home when they wish.

Full boarding

Full boarding schools are in the minority these days, but if you’re looking for a school where everyone boards and there isn’t a mass exodus at weekends, you still have quite a few options.

Boys’ full boarding schools

These include many of the most famous names in British education such as Eton, Winchester, Radley and Harrow. Historically, boys from the English upper classes were sent here to be educated as future leaders, statesmen, bishops and military commanders. These days, boys from many different backgrounds compete for places from all over the world. Nor do you necessarily have to come from a wealthy family. The former head of Eton, Anthony Little, believes schools like Eton should be ‘needs blind’. He told the Good Schools Guide, ‘We do not want to be a finishing school for the titled and rich.’ Noble sentiments and ones that schools such as his are trying to live up to with scholarships and 100 per cent bursaries.

At these schools all pupils (all boys) board and may go home only for exeats, usually two per term, Saturday pm to Sunday pm. However, parents are more involved with school life than formerly; those who live close enough attend matches, concerts and plays. Technology enables much closer contact over long distances too, although boys whose families live abroad must still have guardians, either relatives or else professional guardians to act in loco parentis.

Boys at these senior schools may well have attended full boarding boys’ preps such as Cothill House and Horris Hill or preps where boarding is compulsory for all in the last two years (7 and 8) such as Caldicott and Papplewick.

‘I know that full boarding numbers across the country are declining, but I am certain that there will always be a place for schools like Cothill,’ says headmaster Duncan Bailey. ‘On summer evenings, when the boys are running around in the sunshine, surrounded by their friends, or building camps on the edge of the woods, there are few better places for any active boy to be – whatever their age.’

Girls’ full boarding schools

Benenden and Heathfield are among the very few exclusively full boarding schools for girls. Downe House, Wycombe Abbey, Sherborne Girls and Tudor Hall are essentially full boarding (no flexi/weekly) but also take a few local day pupils. Hanford School in Dorset and Sunny Hill in Somerset are two of a tiny handful of girls only boarding preps.

The best known girls’ boarding schools such as Roedean, Badminton and The Cheltenham Ladies’ College were established in the mid- to late-19th century by formidable pioneers of women’s education. This makes them relative newcomers compared to the likes of Winchester College, believed to be Britain’s oldest school, which was founded in 1382. It also explains why most girls’ schools lack the extensive property portfolios and endowments held by their brothers.

Co-ed full boarding schools

If you want your sons and daughters to attend a full boarding school together there are quite a few co-ed choices including Ampleforth, Milton Abbey, Uppingham and Marlborough College. Because of its proximity to London, Wellington College is de facto weekly boarding since so many pupils go home for Saturday night, nevertheless all boarders must spend two Saturday nights in school per term. All these schools also take a small number of day pupils but don’t offer weekly or flexi boarding options. Girls and boys live in separate boarding accommodation with clear rules about what is out of bounds to visitors of the opposite sex.

Some schools have co-ed sixth form boarding houses, but boundaries are in place. 

Weekly boarding

Weekly boarding is growing in popularity, particularly for children who live too far away to be day pupils or whose parents work long hours and/or frequently travel abroad. Weekly boarders either go home on Friday evenings or Saturday afternoons and return to school on Sunday evenings or Monday mornings. For many children, this offers the best of both worlds: they can enjoy school during the week, work hard and spend lots of time with their friends, then relax at home with their parents on Saturdays and Sundays.

Parents are keen on weekly boarding too. They like the fact that they don’t have to nag about homework or getting up on time in the morning and feel that home time is ‘quality time'. Many opt for boarding schools within an hour’s drive so they can still turn up for sports matches, concerts and drama productions during the term. The mother of a year 7 boarder who drops her son off at Gordon's School (a state boarding school in Surrey) on Monday mornings and picks him up after Saturday morning school says her family gets ‘the best of both worlds,’ adding that with no Saturday school ‘we get a proper family weekend.’

Flexi boarding

The term flexi boarding captures a variety of options, all of which involve sleeping at school but not with the frequency or consistency of weekly or full boarding. It is a commonly found option at boarding preps including Cumnor House Sussex, Windlesham House and The Dragon but senior schools also get in on the act. It receives a mixed press; parents are generally in favour but for some schools it’s a step too far. One prep headmaster describes it as ‘a bit of a nightmare, like glorified hotel management.’ Unlike full and weekly boarding, one school’s definition of ‘flexi’ may not be the same as another’s. It’s certainly never going to be bed and breakfast at the drop of a hat. Most schools require parents to book boarding nights at the beginning of each term, with Thursdays and Fridays being the most popular. Not surprising if it means parents can travel for work or even enjoy a night out without having to find a babysitter (and not have to get up for the Saturday morning school run).

While it can be complicated for schools to manage, flexi boarding could be just the ticket if your child has to stay at school late for sport, music or drama one or two nights a week, or if you want to dip your toe in the water and see if boarding suits your family. Schools that offer flexi boarding will inevitably have some spare beds and many told us that they will always do their best to accommodate a pupil at short notice if there’s a family emergency.

Photo credit: Cumnor House Sussex

 Boarding Schools: The Good Schools GuideBoarding Schools from The Good Schools Guide

A complete guide to the UK's best boarding schools. New for Spring 2022 and featuring impartial, candid school reviews of more than 350 of the UK's leading junior, senior, independent and state boarding schools. Ideal for families interested in boarding, visit The Good Schools Guide shop  to discover more about our latest edition and to order your copy.


Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Preparing your child for private school interviews

    While state schools are prohibited from interviewing any but potential sixth form students, the interview is an integral part of nearly every private school admissions process, and tends to send the applicant’s parents, rather than the actual applicant, into a spin. Parents feel considerably more responsible for their child’s social presentation than for his or her ability to do long division or conjugate French verbs.

  • School open days

    They may not truly reflect day-to-day life at a school (this will be school at its best) but they'll give you a flavour of what's happening and allow you to soak up the atmosphere. They are your chance to have the upper hand, get a feel for the school and chat with pupils and staff. Do visit more than one school: it’s useful to compare and contrast.

  • Prep and pre-prep schools: what do I need to know?

    As their name suggests, the main aim of ‘preparatory schools’, or prep schools, is to prepare children for entry to fee-paying senior schools at 11 or 13. Traditionally, pre-preps take children from 3 or 4 and prepare them for moving on to preps at 7 or 8. There are fewer stand-alone pre-preps than there used to be as their main market, the boarding prep, has declined in numbers.

  • State boarding schools

    If you think your child would benefit from a boarding school education, but are put off by the high fees and consequent limited social mix of a typical independent boarding school, you may find that a state boarding school is the answer. Read more... State grammar schools Counties such as Kent or Buckinghamshire are ‘selective authorities’ and most families will have at least one grammar school close to where they live. Elsewhere, for example in Reading or Kingston-on-Thames, there are just one or two grammar schools and competition for places at these is ferocious. Grammar schools are located in 36…

  • Boarding prep schools: what you need to know

    Nearly all boarding preps go up to age 13 (year 8) because they prepare pupils for senior boarding schools that start in year 9. The majority of pupils at these prep schools start ‘proper’ boarding at around age 11 although some may have tried it out previously via flexi boarding or doing the occasional ‘taster’ night. A few prep schools admit boarders under 10 and make special provision for them with bedrooms that look much closer to how things are at home and, because numbers are small, a regime that is flexible.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.