Exeats? Prep? Jolly hockey-sticks? Boarding isn't for every child or indeed every family, but squeals of delight are frequently heard from those it suits.
Who is in charge?
The headmaster/headmistress runs the school but boarding houses are usually the domain of either houseparents or, in smaller schools, the head of boarding.
Whilst the housemaster or housemistress oversee the house, the day-to-day running, especially of domestic matters, is usually under the supervision of a matron. These stalwart women often find themselves acting as a surrogate mother for the boys and girls, some of whom live abroad and may only see their parents during holidays. Don't underestimate the power wielded by Matron - or her intricate knowledge of every child, their strengths and foibles.
In senior schools and larger prep schools the houseparents (or the tutor) are the key link between home and school; expect most communication to go through them, rather than the head.
Eat, sleep, breathe...
We recommend choosing a house with care.
Make sure the houseparent is someone with whom you and your child have a rapport and whose interests and values match yours.
In larger schools, houses have their own personality and many attract a type - the academic, the arty, the sporty, the off-spring of old-boys. Popular houses often fill years ahead. Register early if a named house is important to you. This has the down-side that the housemaster might not be of your choosing by the time your child crosses the threshold but, it is usually easier to switch from older houses, encrusted in years of solid reputation, than newer ones - where traditions are not so embedded.
Smaller schools have fewer houses so there may not be a choice. Some put younger children in a house together - then mix them in later years (or separate out sixth-formers) others pre-select the house your child will be in. You may not mind whether houses are structured horizontally (all children of a similar age) or vertically (children from across the school years) but if this does matter, make sure the school you choose offers what you want. Most schools separate boys and girls but a few do have mixed houses, so again, check - if this is important to you.
Members of a boarding house are encouraged to feel like an extended family. Boarding school pupils literally live in their houses during term-time: they sleep in dormitories or study-bedrooms, study in their studies or in a communal study area and relax in a television or common room. Formal meals, however, are not always eaten in houses. Tightening EU regulations and expense have forced the closure of many kitchens in older boarding houses, causing pupils from any number of houses to eat together in a communal dining room.
Houses may compete against other houses in sports, put on a play together or even attend a dance with a house from another school. Such activities tend to promote a collaborative atmosphere within the houses, helping to integrate those who may adapt less easily to a boarding way of life.
Most schools lay on a plethora of activities for evenings and weekends: all manner of sports and musical activities, plus entertainment for the cerebral - chess, astronomy and other out of this world experiences - as well as Xbox or Play-stations for those couch-potato moments. Older children are likely to be offered trips to shopping centres at weekends, as well as cinema and theatre. If your child has a particular talent or hobby make sure it is properly catered for - don't trust the prospectus, ask pertinent questions - otherwise you may have a very forlorn child on your hands.
What does it cost?
For the 2013-14 school year, full boarding ranges from around £10,000 a year at state boarding schools (tuition is funded by the state, you simply pay the boarding element), to more than £30,000 per annum at top independent schools. Fees are only a part of the cost. Remember to factor in extras (some such as house subs or exam fees may be compulsory), plus trips and visits and any travel to/from school, guardian costs (if you are overseas), even holiday child-care if applicable.
Weekly boarding is typically around 80% of the full-fee and flexi-boarding is often pro-rata.
A night's occasional boarding will typically cost between £25 and £60. Prior Park College in Bath charges its flexi boarders £45 but levies an £85 fee on any weekly boarder who wishes to spend Sunday evening in school. Some schools, such as Kings Taunton, offer day pupils' one free-night of boarding a week. Before you rub your hands at the thought of a cheap baby-sitting service we should caution that it excludes weekends, unless the child is involved in a school or house event.
The vast majority of boarding schools take work and play very seriously. Homework (or Prep as it is more commonly known) usually has its own dedicated slot, with teachers on hand to supervise and even lend a helping hand. Some schools expect children to work in shared studies, or their own rooms, others will group children together in the library or a classroom - consider what works for your child or perhaps more importantly, what may end in disaster.
If you think your child might have issues with 'homework' ask what the arrangements are. Some schools offer subject clinics in the run up to exams - or even on a regular basis. Find out how prep is monitored and marked, what feedback is given to the children and when. What happens when prep doesn't make the grade? If your child is especially bright, ask if the homework set will stretch them sufficiently and what extra resources are available to ensure your child doesn't get bored. If your child is an especially busy child - in the sports teams, caroling in the choir, playing first triangle in the orchestra - find out how they will be helped to manage their time.
Boarding options explained - key considerations
Boarding options range from an occasional overnight stay, to the traditional full-boarding model. The vast majority of 'full-boarding' schools have compulsory exeats (leave-outs) every 3 weeks or so.
These days only a handful of (mainly) top public schools that tend to adhere wholly to the traditional full boarding model. It is increasingly common to find schools that offer a 'boarding menu'. Take your pick from full, fortnightly, weekly, flexi, occasional or day-boarding.
Think carefully about what suits your needs and what, realistically, your child can cope with (though children are usually far more resilient than parents when it comes to boarding!).
Whatever you opt for, we recommend children have at least a 'taster' day and night at the school before parents sign on the dotted line.
Weekdays and weekends are spent in school.
- the 24/7 child;
- parents who work unusual or irregular hours;
- those overseas;
- children who live a considerable distance from the school they have chosen;
- anyone who wants their child to experience 'proper boarding';
- military, expat and other families that move frequently. A boarding school education can provide much needed stability and lifelong friendships.
- Overseas parents should be mindful of the need to have independent arrangements in place for their child to be looked after during exeats and holidays. A UK-based guardian is a legal requirement.
- Most schools have one compulsory exeat per half-term.
- Not all schools will flex to allow children home during 'school weekends' even for key occasions such as family birthdays. Check their attitude matches yours, before you sign.
- Some schools offer full boarding but have relatively few takers. The published boarding figures may mask this. Ask how many boys and girls remain in school at weekends. Make sure they are of a similar age/gender to your child.
A handful of schools offer fortnightly boarding, usually in place of full boarding. Fortnightly boarding tends to operate along the same lines as full boarding but children go home every other weekend.
Similar to full boarding but weekends are spent at home.
- busy families with parents working long hours through the week;
- children who live within reasonable proximity of the school;
- children who enjoy after school activities and who prefer to do prep in schools;
- children who will benefit from a change of scene at weekends.
- Travelling can become a chore if the school is not within stamping distance.
- Many of the 'true' boarding activities take place at weekends so weekly boarders may miss-out.
- In schools where most boarders are full-boarders, weekly boarders may feel left-out.
- If the school operates Saturday school or weekend sports matches you will need to ensure off-spring are in attendance (if selected to play).
Boarding arrangements flex to meet the needs of the parents and the child. A child will commit to spending two or three nights per week boarding, though not necessarily the same nights each week.
- parents who have regular weekly commitments;
- children who are tentative about boarding;
- as a boarding taster prior to the full-Monty.
- Can be unsettling for parents, children and other boarders.
- A child may treat flexi-boarding as a 'sleep-over' potentially disrupting other full-time boarders with resentment between the two building.
- May find it difficult to maintain boarding friends if no boarding routine is established.
In reality a glorified baby-sitting service, though most schools will defend this saying it gives children a 'taste' of boarding school life. Few complaints from youngsters who appear to enjoy the 'sleep-over' experience.
- parents who require occasional overnight child-care cover;
- children who have school commitments that sometimes result in a long school-day;
- children who wish to experience a night or two away from home.
- Occasional boarding is not a reflection of true boarding-life.
- Odd grumble from seasoned boarders who say occasional boarders upset their routines/treat boarding as a 'sleep-over party' and so cause friction/resentment.
The children do not sleep at the school but may well take join boarders for breakfast and evening meals, often leaving school only once evening prep is completed. Approaches to day boarders vary; some schools have separate day houses, others integrate day and boarding pupils.
- pupils who partake in a lot of extra-curricular activities;
- children who do not wish to spend evenings away from home;
- parents who want children to have a full-school life but cannot afford boarding fees;
- parents who work long hours with early starts/ late finishes.
- Children may miss-out on night time fun and weekend activities.
- Youngsters may find the long school day, with early starts and late finishes, tiring.
State boarding schools are as popular as ever. Not least because free tuition makes a boarding education affordable for many. The majority of state boarding schools accept pupils from 11 (though the odd one will accepts children from age 8). State boarding schools offer weekly or full boarding and accept children based on boarding need. Their popularity, and the fact they are usually attached to good state schools means places fill fast. Children may be interviewed but only on suitability to board - not on academic ability, unless the school has selective entry for all pupils.
- Children whose families are mobile, or who will benefit from a boarding education.
- Facilities and accommodation tend not to be as all-singing and dancing as some of their private counterparts.
- Classes likely to be close to maximum permitted numbers of 30/32, rather than the smaller groupings found in independent schools.