There are many kinds of boarding schools: large, small, co-ed, single-sex, prep schools, senior schools, all-through schools, those in the middle of towns, those in the countryside. Some schools are dedicated to children with Special Educational Needs; others cater for children who are particularly keen on the performing arts.
Some offer full boarding (where pupils stay in school most weekends), some weekly (pupils go home every weekend), some flexi (spending a certain number of nights at school each week).
Most of these are independent and therefore fee-paying, but there are state boarding schools too, where the education is free and parents or guardians pay only for the boarding provision.
Finding the right school is very important; it takes time. Boarding schools welcome visits by prospective parents and sometimes offer taster days or sleepovers. There are organisations which offer plenty of up-to-date advice, such as the Boarding Schools’ Association , the Good Schools Guide and Talk Education .
Some parents question the point of having children if you then ‘send’ them to a boarding school (although the concept of ‘sending’ children away is a very outdated concept: nowadays, selecting a boarding school is very much a choice with the wishes of the child themselves at the forefront of that decision).
On a practical level, many families have two working parents whose jobs sometimes entail very long working weeks, unexpected travel or overseas postings. In situations like these boarding can provide their children with continuity of education and stability of routine, while giving parents confidence that their children are safe and being well looked after.
However, boarding schools are also a type of schooling that provide children with so much more than those important basics.
For a start, where the children live is unrecognisable from even 20 years ago. Boarding houses are modern, warm and comfortable, and there are plenty of bathrooms! Younger children usually share a bedroom with three or four others; older children usually have their own bedroom/study which they can make as homely as they want. There is plenty of communal space to lounge around in, watch films, listen to music, chat. The food is good – often outstanding, in fact – and there are kitchens to make toast and hot chocolate. There’s peace for the children to work, read and do their music practice; there are opportunities to pursue hobbies, find new interests, and join in whatever is going on.
Most schools have a House system where every child becomes part of a family. This is where friendships are forged, often for life, and inter-House rivalry is encouraged in sport, singing, plays or all kinds of crazy competitions. There will be a Housemaster or Housemistress in residence, a deputy, a matron, and tutors – who not only help individual students with academic work but are on hand to provide advice and support. Pastoral care is of the highest standard (and is part of the official inspection regime) and there are older children to talk to who are trained in confidential listening and advising if anyone is anxious. Wellbeing and welfare are the main themes of boarding house life.
Life at a boarding school continues seven days a week. Weekends are more relaxed, of course (although there are sometimes lessons on Saturday mornings), allowing time to study, have fun, use the school’s arts, music and sports facilities – and play in matches – and there are usually lots of outings.
Children go home for Half Term and usually for a couple of long weekends every term. Communication with family is encouraged, although use of mobile phones is usually forbidden after a certain time in the evening to ensure proper sleep.
Attending a boarding school is recognised as good preparation for university. Boarders are usually busy so learn how to manage their time – a valuable skill. They will already be used to living away from home and making friends with new people.
Living in a community of younger children and adults, as well as their own year group, boarders learn social confidence, tolerance, independence and how to make friends with people who may have backgrounds and cultures different from their own. They can find their own voice by listening to others. They learn the importance of cooperation, collaboration and teamwork – the soft skills that employers all over the world are looking for.
In fact, boarding makes school much more than a school. It is an all-round preparation for life and all its challenges.