Those who maintain that the British boarding school is an educational dinosaur, waddling slowly towards inevitable extinction, obviously haven’t got a copy of our latest publication The Good Schools Guide: Boarding Schools. Turn to any page and it's obvious that the 450+ independent and 38 state boarding schools our writers have reviewed are thriving.
Their ancient buildings and pastoral acres may appear timeless but, over the last few decades boarding schools have not only invested to improve facilities – there has also been a revolution in the approach to pupils’ wellbeing and pastoral care. Add to this a choice of flexible options from full boarding to the occasional bed and breakfast and you get a system that is eminently well suited to modern family life.
So why do families choose boarding? Those with several children might sign up for weekly or flexi boarding because it’s preferable to hours in the car on multiple school runs. Or maybe their child has a particular aptitude - some boarding schools offer the specialist facilities and staff to develop sporting or musical talents. In other circumstances a small, nurturing boarding school can provide stability and a haven for a child during times of instability or difficulties at home.
Another popular option is sixth form boarding after GCSEs, a time when many pupils are ready for a change. It’s a great preparation for life at university - although be warned, some may find university accommodation considerably less salubrious than their school’s.
Parents considering boarding schools naturally want to have confidence in every aspect of the provision – not just facilities and safeguarding policies but also things like extracurricular activities, especially if their child is likely to be in school at the weekend. Our famously detailed and direct reviews help parents check that reality tallies with the school’s marketing material.
Boarding, 21st century style, is flourishing. The number of families opting for boarding schools is increasing and the decision to board is, as often as not, made by children themselves. Whether you are looking for famous names, co-ed boarding schools or country preps which can accommodate not only your child but also their beloved pony, you’re likely to be spoilt for choice.
English prep school life – An Australian gappie’s view
Al Whittle (18), an Australian gap student who works at the Oratory Prep in Oxfordshire, reflects on the life of a gappie and one or two cultural differences …
I’ve got a confession to make. I work at a school and yet I still, embarrassingly, call my fellow staff ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. That’s right – I’m a gap student. I get jobs like photocopying and cutting food up for the children I work with. Trust me, hell hath no fury like a 4-year-old whose sandwich has been cut into squares when ‘ALL I WANTED WAS TRIANGLES, MR WHITTLE!’
Most days I wake up early and attempt to dress teacher-ish. With my three fellow gaps, we’ll have the kids up by 7am, then dressed, fed and off to school by 8:15. After morning boarding house duties my timetable is busy with lifeguarding, music admin, classroom help, games and break duty. I spend my free time cycling and running or I might just chill out and watch Netflix. My favourite part of the day is football fixtures that I either referee or coach, because I get to meet gaps from other schools in the area – it’s a cool way to make new friends. It is strange though, being thrown from playing these sports into coaching them, particularly football, since it’s far from Australia’s most beloved sport. I’ve certainly taken my sweet time getting the hang of the rules.
The life of a gap student at a British boarding school is mostly fun but it has its serious moments. Dealing with unruly kids, injuries at games or workplace tensions gives us a glimpse of what it is to be an adult.
So I guess I should touch on why I took this job. Like any student fresh out of school I had many options to choose from but the gap year promise of a steady wage, the opportunity to travel and the chance to escape home persuaded me to take the leap.
Never having worked with kids before I didn’t know what to expect. I have found them to be witty, constantly considerate of their friends and far more intelligent than I initially gave them credit for. As for the English boarding school stereotype – antiquated one-size-fits-all teaching methods, bullying and old geezer-type teachers who refuse to leave – the reality was quite the contrary. The Oratory has a young and vibrant workforce and the emphasis is on the growth of the pupils as individuals.
A big part of independent education in the UK is the connections a student makes, something I’m quite jealous of. Connections – with peers or alumni – seem to get you further in the UK than they would in a society as meritocratic as Australia’s. A previous gappie told me he went to a dinner with the headmaster from the school he worked at and two other people - one of whom just happened to be the Duke of Kent. I’ll bet my left foot that wouldn’t happen in Australia.
From my experience in both private and state Australian prep schools I’m certain that private schools in the UK take a more structured approach to their curriculum, especially when it comes to teaching maths. Australian schools (state and private) are very lax with mathematics, often neglecting the need for specialist maths teachers, instead assigning just about anyone to the task and handing them a textbook to read from. This is partly because they’re rarely academically selective.
Another huge difference is that private education in Australia is vastly more popular, with a third of all students being privately educated. In 2016 my school had 1,776 pupils from reception to year 12, and we weren’t even the biggest private school in the state. Consequently, competition between schools is much stronger than it seems to be here.
Education aside, the UK is so different to home. Firstly the weird things: I’m not sure if it’s just London but I remember walking along King’s Road in Chelsea in my first week here, grinning away because I’d never been to the UK before. I could see the disgust dripping off the British people around me, their facial expressions reading like a book: ‘Ugh, he’s smiling on a work day in London. What a freak!’ I’ve also found people here to be really averse to confrontation and interacting with others. I was recently asked to deliver a message about a job to one person just so that I would offer to do the job, rather than the message sender asking the recipient to do it. It’s an utterly gauche yet strangely artful way of avoiding conversation. An Australian would just say, ‘Maaaate! I need this job done. I owe you one. Cheers!’ I miss our rowdiness, our national brash demeanour that’s charming, albeit impolite.
So yes, that’s my ‘gapping in England’ story so far. It’s been exciting, nervewracking, and at times just plain weird. Now the Easter break is upon us and I’m off to London, so tin hats on and umbrellas up.
New book: The Parent Brief - Independent School Entrance
Looking for a guide to help your children get into an independent school? This book, written by people who really know their way around the system, gives a clear and robust view of the dos and don'ts, tending at times to a brutal honesty that will give some of the schools that read it severe attacks of the hiccups. No harm in that, of course – much better that parents should know where they really stand. Independent schools are genuinely open – and welcoming – to all, but the hoops that pupils (and parents) have to leap through to get in are completely different to state schools. With this book, you will be well prepared.
Move house for a special needs diagnosis?
The Good Schools Guide’s SEN director, Bernadette John, reports on a new study that has found huge geographical variation in how children with special educational needs are assessed with a particular need.
Parents of children with special educational needs get used to being told to move house. Some are advised to move to get into the right area for a school that caters for their child’s needs while others are told to move to a county with a less awkward local authority (a cheaper route, say barristers, than taking legal action against your own local authority to get the right school place).
But now the advice could be to move house to get a diagnosis. A new study has found that the proportion of SEN children assessed with a particular need can vary by up to 30 per cent by local authority. Find yourself in the wrong one and your child may not get the diagnosis he or she needs for specialist provision.
Jonathan Rix, professor of participation and learning support at the Open University, who conducted the study, says: ‘It is a lottery which people have known about for years – and it is not going away despite changes to legislation.’
Professor Rix found that while, in one local authority, 4.4 per cent of children with special needs were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, in another as many as 17.2 per cent of such children were diagnosed with the condition.
Something in the water? Because diagnosis rates of specific learning difficulty ranged by authority from 5.4 per cent to 26.1 per cent; social, emotional and mental health needs from 11.9 per cent to 24.2 per cent and speech, language and communication needs from 12 per cent to 31 per cent of all children with SEN.
The biggest discrepancy was in the diagnosis of moderate learning difficulty (MLD), which ranged from 10.3 per cent to 40.3 per cent. How can this be? We bet there is a correlation between these figures and the provision each county makes for MLD.
You don’t need a statistician to tell you that conditions do not cluster geographically to this extent. The result has to be that children are being misdiagnosed – or deprived of a diagnosis that may help them to get the schooling they need.
Professor Rix believes that this is a consequence of diagnosis being a subjective activity and that there is no such thing as a right diagnosis. But this is a big issue because the flawed system relies on the diagnosis as a means to channel funding and direct practice.
A longer version of this article on our website looks at the action parents can take in view of this. If you need help with finding a school for a child with special needs, our Advice Service has five specialist advisers.
The Good Schools Guide education barometer
The school day. George Osborne has told secondary schools to delay the final bell for an hour to make time for extracurricular activities such as music, drama and sport.
Numbers. George Osborne (yes, again) is considering making maths lessons compulsory for all until the age of 18. Never did him any harm …
Play. The Lego Foundation is funding a new (small and brightly coloured?) chair at the University of Cambridge and the name of the first ‘Professor of Play’ is shortly to be announced.
Gap years - according to Sir Martin Sorrell they’re little more than an excuse for some serious dossing about. But surely Sir Martin, a year exploring the outer limits of social media is perfect preparation for the world of advertising.
Students dressing up and partying like it’s 1899. Clare College Cambridge’s plans for an ‘Orient Express’ May Ball have come in for criticism. Some might see it as an innocent attempt to recreate Edwardian glamour but chippier types have decried its ‘culturally loaded’ theme (rich tourists travelling first class). Now, who’s up for a toga party?
Parent governors. A recent government white paper proposes that it should no longer be compulsory for schools to have parents on their governing bodies. Instead schools should recruit ‘experts’ with ‘governance skills’.