If 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 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 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 Sexey’s School (a state boarding school in Somerset) on Monday mornings and picks him up on Friday afternoons says her family gets ‘the best of both worlds,’ adding that with no Saturday school ‘we get a proper family weekend.’
Flexi boarding gets 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 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.