Boarding in the 21st Century

By | 19 September 2008

British boarding schools are probably the best in the world. Hilary Moriarty, National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, explains how much has changed and how much of value has been retained.

The first thing you have to know is that today boarding is certainly not what you may remember, probably not what you imagine, and maybe not even what you think. If you remember long chilly dormitories and cold showers, they are gone. But modern boarding is not Hogwarts, either: many of the goings on at Hogwarts would close a boarding school today, even if the benevolent presence of Dumbledore is a wonderful antidote to any of the excesses of other characters, bizarre staff and downright bullies included. Has the world changed in the last ten years? Yes, by leaps and bounds and in ways we could not have imagined. Boarding has been part of that change. In a highly competitive, extremely discerning market, boarding schools have transformed themselves to offer what today’s customer expects of one of the most important investments a parent can make for their child’s present and future happiness and success.
So what do good boarding schools offer? The first thing is choice. Matching the school to the child is hugely important, but there is such a range of boarding schools available that parents are almost certain to find one to suit their child. Single sex or co-ed? While many girls’ schools maintain that girls achieve more and thrive better in a single-sex school, many boys’ schools in recent times have opened their doors to girls, so that the number of schools for boys only has dwindled. The debate about the merits of single sex or co-ed education persists, but this is one of the areas where the youngster is likely to have strong views. Since the child’s involvement in the decision is important, it is as well to talk this issue through right at the start. Highly academic or more inclusive of children with different academic abilities? Many of the highest placed schools in the annual league tables of success at A Level and GCSE are boarding schools. Their focus on academic success can support and encourage highly able children to pinnacles of success in all subjects, guaranteeing admission to the finest universities world-wide, including, increasingly, America. But there are many boarding schools, large and small, where there may be very different selection criteria. All would say the children who join them, be they academic or artistic, sportsmen or promising actors, the confident and the less so, will achieve their full potential, partly because of the rich, all-encompassing 24/7 environment they join – in short, because they are boarders.
Boarding offers time and opportunity to explore talents outside the classroom, from rock-climbing to rock bands, ceramics to squash. Success in the choir or the rugby team has a habit of generating success elsewhere also: increased self-esteem gives children the confidence to try harder, try more, believe they can succeed. Every child wants to be the best at something; in a boarding school, a child is likely to find the time, the opportunity, the specialist staff, the facilities and the sheer encouragement to find their niche, something which may create a lifetime interest, hobby or career. Duncan Goodhew attributes his Olympic gold success to his prep school and senior boarding school where his dyslexia was properly handled and his enormous talent in a swimming pool was recognised and nurtured. For every medal winner, there will be a dozen others who paint their whole life because they learned to enjoy it in the Art Room in the peace and quiet of a Saturday afternoon, or who play village cricket right up until the time when their best efforts mean donning the white coat of the umpire, glass of wine in hand, having learned the intricacies of the game on the sunlit pitches of their teenage years.
Even happy, busy boarders may miss home and family, but this is far less the case since boarding schools have become more flexible. Many now offer weekly boarding, with children going home on Friday evening or Saturday lunchtime. This is a great option for busy parents, out at dawn and home late on working days. The whole family works hard during the week, with the young person well cared for, with friends and company in a safe environment, until the family is able to enjoy time together at weekends. Similarly, parents may find that a school can make flexi-boarding available, so a child stays in for a couple of nights a week, perhaps occasionally for a school production, or regularly because of a long journey home. Such boarding often leads parents and children to recognise how valuable the boarding experience can be, in developing the confident young people who will run the world when we retire.
Particularly for parents overseas, a full boarding school may be attractive because the school community really does cover the whole week, with as many people to socialise with at weekends as there are in the evenings, and no one leaving on a Friday to make a child wish they could also go home. Even for full boarders, staying in touch with Mum and Dad has never been easier. Mobile phones and e-mail mean that good news and small triumphs will bubble through to parents almost as fast as they happen; if a child has an anxiety or a concern, you will know. Housemasters and mistresses will contact parents far more often than used to be the case. Schools in general and Houseparents in particular really do recognise the importance and value of the partnership between parents and schools which enables a child to thrive, supported and encouraged on all sides. At boarding school, your child does not lose a parent; he gains a couple more.
In recent times, schools have made particular efforts to offer the kind of boarding accommodation which encourages prospective pupils and parents to go ‘Wow!’ when they see it. Gone are the Spartan conditions of years ago. Single study bedrooms with en suite facilities for senior pupils are becoming the norm – one Headmaster spoke of his new boarding house recently as, ‘More like a hotel than any boarding house you have ever seen.’ For younger pupils, cosy four-bedded rooms give children company and help cement the kind of friendships which ex-boarders frequently report as one of the most important benefits of boarding. It’s fun, and friendships forged while living and learning together do indeed last a lifetime. Facilities for sport of all kinds, and drama and music almost go without saying. How good to have so much within reach in a safe environment, without Mum and Dad turning into an unpaid taxi service or justifiably fretting over a child coming home on a late bus.
Schools have of course been responsive to an increasingly demanding market, but inspection and regulation have played their part in improving life in boarding. While education in independent boarding schools is inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, and in state boarding schools by Ofsted, boarding itself in whichever kind of school is now inspected by Ofsted. The base document upon which inspection is conducted is the 52 National Minimum Standards for Boarding which offers a framework upon which schools can be judged in all areas of the boarding experience. Inspections are conducted every three years and the reports are published and available on the Ofsted website as well as the schools’ own websites. There is no doubt that the standards have been thoroughly taken to heart by schools, and that inspection reports are an important source of information and reassurance for parents. These objective and impartial commentaries on schools a parent may be considering should substantiate all that a Head would say is true of a school.
Increasingly, also, staff who work in boarding, from Housemasters and Housemistresses to matrons and nurses, are taking advantage of courses which focus on the needs of boarders. Run by the Boarding Schools’ Association, and accredited by Roehampton University, these courses are a unique source of continuing professional development for a body of people who are recognised as pivotal in a child’s boarding life.
Is boarding affordable? Well, while most boarding schools are independent, and charge for education as well as boarding, there are 35 state boarding schools in the country, which charge for boarding but do not charge for education. They are state schools, but offer almost 4000 boarding places, with the government hoping to increase the number of places by 300 in the near future. Fees are likely to be between #7,000 and #12,000 for a year. While class sizes may be larger than in independent schools, a state boarding comprehensive school came second in the Sunday Times league table for A level and International Baccalaureate results in August 2007, so they are definitely worth exploring.
Even if you think you cannot afford their fees, there is nothing to be lost by talking to the Head of an independent school. Many schools are considering how best to react to the impetus from the Charity Commission to justify their charitable status by making their education available to those who cannot afford it; some will introduce or extend bursary schemes. Even now, published lists of scholarships and awards for entry in the next academic year indicate that some very prestigious schools offer as many as 50 such awards for children with talents in sport, music, art and drama, as well as in academic subjects. If you think your child would benefit from a boarding education but it’s out of your price range, it is always worth asking what help is available.
Boarding is certainly not what it used to be. Indeed there has probably never been a better time to board, and the stories today’s boarders tell in the future will be positive reflections on high calibre education and excellent pastoral care, independence, confidence, fun and friendship with young people from all over the world. How better to approach the fast-moving, multi-cultural, multi-national world of tomorrow? In fact, boarding is more than an education: it’s the perfect preparation for life.

Hilary Moriarty is the National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of Attain.

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