Given that the majority of boarding school pupils are aged from 13 upwards, some parents might think school fees a small price to pay for letting trained professionals steer their hormonal offspring over the turbulent waters of adolescence. Even so, we all know that risk taking, underage drinking, drugs, sex, self-harm, anorexia and the other ills that teenage flesh is heir to, can occur right under parents’ noses. What then should you expect boarding schools to do to keep young people safe?
Not that long ago the term ‘pastoral care’ was rarely heard. These days it’s up there with academic results as a key measure of any school’s success and as closely monitored as exam performance. In addition to the normal school inspection visits (Ofsted for state schools, ISI for independent schools), government inspectors visit all boarding schools to check every aspect of provision from fire escapes to mattresses and they also talk to staff, pupils and parents. All schools should have a link to the latest boarding inspection report (and their response to any issues raised) on their website. But knowing the number of locks on a dormitory window won’t tell you if someone will notice your child staring miserably out of it.
All schools provide copious information on how they ensure pupils’ safety (usually termed ‘safeguarding’ and well-being (if they don’t, make your excuses and leave). It’s up to you to attend the open days, go to the talks, read the literature and then weigh up whether the regime will suit your child. See page x for more details about child protection.
Houseparents, as the name suggests, will be most closely involved in your child’s day to day life at school. Houseparents are your first point of contact and you should feel able to ask them anything and expect to get prompt answers to your questions. This is a highly professional and responsible job and to a great extent your child’s happiness will depend on their (and your) relationship with these people.
Many, but not all, house parents are married couples, often with children – and pets - of their own. One (or very often both), is likely to teach at the school. They live in the boarding house along with several other adults such as ‘gappies’ (young people, often from Australia or S Africa), matrons and/or tutors. The nomenclature and precise arrangement will depend on the school and the number/age of boarders, but there’s generally at least one resident adult per corridor/floor.
Most schools have ‘vertical’ (mixed age) boarding 13 – 16, with sixth formers accommodated separately; they may also keep year 7 and 8 boarders in a separate house. Some smaller schools have ‘horizontal’ (year group) boarding houses. In either case, there will be separate bed times, rules etc that are appropriate to the age of the children.
Parents often ask us how to get their child into a particular house – maybe they’ve heard on the grapevine that ‘x’ is the ‘sporty’ house or ‘y’ is the ‘best’ house. While it’s true that the character of the house parents or housemaster/mistress is inevitably going to have an influence, schools tell us that they work hard to ensure every house has a good mix of types. It’s also worth bearing in mind that during your child’s years at the school house staff may leave, so it’s best not to pin all your hopes on someone you happen to particularly like. Families are encouraged to look round several, if not all, boarding houses and apply in order of preference – but school has the final say.
House or home?
While people are always more important to the ethos of a school than buildings, architecture will also influence your decision. Girls at Westonbirt School sleep under the high ceilings of grade 1 listed state rooms and our reviewer found ‘Priceless silk wallpaper, preserved under Perspex, rubbing shoulders with One Direction posters.’ Boarders at Cheltenham College live in elegant town houses – one advantage of this is that it puts a little distance between school and ‘home’. Modern, purpose built boarding houses, while less characterful, are likely to have better plumbing. All in all, boarding accommodation seems to be improving year on year, no doubt keeping local building trades very busy over the summer holidays.
Pupils with physical disabilities
Historic buildings rarely make for easy disabled access and if your child needs special arrangements you must to discuss these with the school well in advance. This won’t just apply to boarding houses; classrooms may be up several flights of stairs and there can often be a fair way to walk between lessons. That being said, we know of many schools who have done all they can to accommodate pupils in wheelchairs or with visual or hearing impairments.
Food glorious food
You will be relieved to hear that our reviewers, who always try and have lunch in the schools they visit, have never been faced with the grim fare endured by the likes of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre. Nor we hope will today’s boarders find themselves afflicted in adult life with ‘boarding school eating’. This not entirely polite style of consumption, which stems from parsimonious portion control at schools in the 1960s and 70s, is characterised by rapid scoffing of everything in sight before someone else snaffles it.
Wonderful cooked breakfasts, delicious vegetarian options, salad bars, in-house coffee shops and locally grown produce are almost standard these days. Most schools have a central dining hall, but at some, like Malvern College, boarders eat all meals in their houses. This may be a practical arrangement if houses are a little distance from the main school building, but it also has a beneficial influence on table manners as well as making it easier for staff to spot a child who isn’t eating. Boarders will also have access to house kitchens with toasters, microwaves etc and fresh fruit is always available. Nor have tuck boxes been consigned to history; full boarders still use them to keep favourite treats under lock and key.
At Tudor Hall School sixth formers told us they like to buy bacon and eggs from the nearby farm shop and make their own breakfasts at the weekend. Boarders at town schools will find that the local takeaways are more than happy to deliver; this is particularly popular with boarders from overseas who might fancy an (albeit Anglicised) taste of home.
Playing by the rules
Googling a school may lead you to press reports about historic sexual abuse, expulsions for drug use and other stories guaranteed to make a parent’s blood run cold. The measure of a school is not so much that these things happened (though relatively infrequent, such things do), but how such serious and unfortunate incidents are handled. If a school declares, for instance, that possession of drugs will lead to immediate expulsion but fails to expel those who break this rule, you should make your own judgement. (Some schools will allow pupils to return to sit public exams.)
Remember, too, that although occurrences like this are surprisingly rare, just because a school has a squeaky clean record is no guarantee that something won’t happen in the future. You will have to take much on trust, just as the school will trust your child not to break the rules.
Even in the sixth form it’s unlikely that your son or daughter will enjoy the 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) 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.
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. At some full boarding schools older pupils may apply for permission to host parties in designated areas.
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. Parents of girls in particular may want to get a feeling for the state of gender relations in the school. Is there any suggestion that girls are second class citizens while (say) rugby captains are gods?
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.
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 see what kind of ‘intimate relationship’ there is between reality and policy. The ‘Pastoral care, well being and discipline’ section of our reviews will cover some of these issues.
If your own domestic regime is more Liberty Hall than Dotheboys Hall you will need to discuss potential schools’ disciplinary policies with your child and be realistic if you think the worlds are too far apart.
Homesickness is almost always a short-term problem that the school, the parents and the child can weather by working together. It’s not a universal affliction, but many children away from home and family for the first time are likely to have a bout. Schools manage this by keeping their charges busy, busy, busy during the first few weeks and being ultra vigilant. Several have told us that managing parents during this time is equally challenging and that, depending on circumstances, it can be more settling if children aren’t chatting to anxious mummy every night. Some children sail through their first term but come down with a nasty case when they return to school after the Christmas holidays. No school will want to keep a child boarding if they are profoundly and persistently unhappy, and in these relatively rare circumstances parents are advised accordingly. Sometimes it’s a case of trying again after a few terms, but sometimes a different type of school is the only answer.