Boarding school won’t suit everyone. You know that. Boarding school is expensive. You know that too. Should you send your child to boarding school? You’re unsure about that. This might inform your decision.
How many boarding schools are there?
In the UK there are 497 mainstream schools that offer boarding to 75,000 pupils. Or 2% of schools for 0.7% of the pupil population.
All but 43 boarding schools are independent. Yes, there are state boarding schools, but it’s clearly domain of the private schools. 29% of independent schools offer boarding, and boarders account for 13% of all independent school pupils.
Here’s how the 497 schools and the 75,000 pupils are distributed by type of boarding school. I’ve also included a ratio of boarders to all pupils, boarding and day-only, at those boarding schools.
The first point is that 87% of all boarders are at a senior school.
The second point is that not all pupils at each type of school are boarders. On average, two-thirds of pupils at boarding schools are day pupils. Put another way, there are more day than boarding pupils at 73% of boarding schools.
Where are the boarding schools?
90% of the schools are in England, 5% in Scotland and 3% in Wales. The balance is in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
You might be surprised to know that, of the English boarding schools, only 3% are in London. London is a day school city. But you won’t be surprised to know that 40% of English boarding schools are in the Home Counties. And two thirds of all English boarding schools are south of a line from Essex to Gloucestershire.
Nearly 50% of boarding schools are located in areas that you might call rural. A further 40% are in towns or small cities. 10% are in urban locations or major conurbations.
Full, weekly or flexi boarding?
Boarding comes in all packages and variations according to the school providing it. Full, or termly, boarding is boarding for seven days a week, during term time. There may, or may not, be exeat weekends where accommodation must be vacated, and staff given a break. Exeats tend to coincide with half term but can be more frequent.
About 80% of boarders are full boarders, and this option is, obviously, popular with international pupils.
Weekly boarding is boarding during the week and going home for the weekend. Schools differ on when the weekend starts; Friday night or Saturday morning. It can also refer to boarding for four, five or six nights, so comparison gets tricky.
Another term, flexi boarding, refers to an agreed number of nights of boarding. It can be synonymous with weekly boarding, but it can also refer to as little as one night.
With flexi boarding, bed allocation practices vary. Sometimes the bed is solely for the use of one pupil, with their personal effects to make the space homely. Sometimes the bed is used by another in that child’s home nights.
You may hear the term “occasional boarding” which is more of a spontaneous sleepover arrangement. Also, “day boarding”, which isn’t sleeping, but is participation in post school meals and activities to 8, 9 or 10pm.
What age does boarding start?
87% of UK boarders are at a secondary school.
Of the 13% at prep and junior schools, 70% are in Years 7 and 8 of prep school (age 11-13). After all, the traditional raison d’être of a prep school was to prepare children for boarding life in senior schools.
Which means that only 4% of the total boarding population is younger than 11 (Year 6). You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of schools who offer boarding before Year 3 (age 7/8).
Why boarding schools are different today
With its roots in monastic learning, boarding flourished during the days of Empire. Parents in the Armed Forces or overseas administration opted for the trusted standard and continuity of a UK boarding school. The alternative was the disruption and variability of education at a series of overseas postings.
But in recent years, the size of the military has declined as has the MoD education subsidy. Subsequently, there was a steep decline in the number of children boarding. Even in the period 1980-2000 the number of boarders in the UK dropped by 40%.
Boarding schools responded in three ways that are relevant today.
Firstly, they dramatically improved the quality of their provision. Goodbye Spartan quarters resembling military barracks, hello 3* and 4* accommodation.
Secondly, they marketed to wealthy overseas students looking for the cachet of a UK Public School education.
Thirdly, they made boarding much more appealing to would be day pupils by promoting weekly boarding (home at the weekends) and flexi boarding (boarding à la carte).
The number of boarders has since been stable.
Is there more bullying at boarding schools?
Search Google and you’ll find plenty of bad historical press about boarding schools and their erstwhile harsh regimes. Cold showers, bullying and fagging are the memories of those who attended a generation or two ago. Even Prince Charles remembers his boarding experience as “Colditz in kilts”.
But as you probably know by now, all that has changed.
UK boarding schools are a fabulous option for schooling. They are professional organisations, run by professional people.
They provide safe and comfortable living quarters from the “homely” to the “boutique hotel”. And they offer facilities and activities that parents can’t sustainably provide.
Consign any fears of quasi-Victorian correction facilities to the dim and distant past.
And they are regulated. Your child will be cared for by qualified, vetted, and compassionate people. People such as teachers, house parents, nurses, matrons, and matey gap-year students. Pastoral care at boarding schools is among the best at any school.
How much do boarding schools cost?
Unsurprisingly, this is the knock-out blow for the vast majority. Few parents can afford a boarding education for their children. In 2020 the average cost per term for full boarding rose from £7,640 in Year 3 to £10,836 in the 6th form. Add in a day pre-prep and that works out at an average of £342,000 over a school career. In today prices, before extras, and from taxed income. Yes, it’s expensive.
Is it any wonder then, that such a large proportion of boarders are children of wealthy foreign nationals, bankers and associated legal and accounting professions?
The upside is that these demanding customers drive up standards of provision. These are the schools that are the main protagonists of the facilities arms race. Many boarding schools now have professional standard sporting facilities with a consequent increase in fees. After all, a £40M sports hall doesn’t pay for itself.
The downside is the inevitable homogeneity of the social mix.
Too expensive for the majority of people. But those who can afford it will prefer to take the view that £100-£130 per day/night boarding is excellent value. £100-£130 for the accommodation, meals, round the clock supervision and care, activities and, not forgetting, teaching.
Who sends their child to boarding school?
Despite its heritage in the military, today only 6% of all boarders are children of UK Forces parents. A further 6% are children of UK parents working overseas. A significant 37% of boarders are foreign nationals, half of which are pupils from China and Russia. These international students may be slow to return after Covid potentially making some boarding schools financially vulnerable.
So that leaves 51%, of the total boarding population of 75,000 pupils. These are the children whose parents could have chosen a day school, but instead chose boarding. Why?
These parents fall into at least one of four categories;
- Parents who have busy professional lives, work late or unpredictable hours. They can’t dedicate the time they would like to parenting for seven days a week. A nanny is a possibility. But boarding is preferable. Not full but four or five days per week.
- The family lives in a rural area. Their child has limited access to friends and activities in the local village. Driving to a suitable school is impractical so full or weekly boarding is the preferred option.
- Parents who were boarders themselves, liked it, and want their children to have that experience too.
- Parents who have done their research and have chosen the best school for their child. Which just so happens to be boarding school.
Will boarding be the making of my child?
Beware the cliché of a boarding school being the making of someone or toughening them up.
There is an age, personality, and maturity aspect to independence and resilience. If your child is interested, outgoing and personable they’ll probably enjoy boarding. If they are meek, introverted, or clingy, they probably won’t.
What are the advantages of boarding?
There’s the camaraderie of course. And parental convenience. But the biggest draw of boarding school are the extra-curricular activities.
In the evenings and weekends there’s extra time for sports, arts, hobbies, whatever. Everything is available in one place. For a child, what’s not to like? Boundless activities, friends, and sleepovers!
To match it, a day school parent would be co-ordinating a range of school clubs with out-of-school clubs. Which means balancing the logistics of transport arrangements, homework, meals, other siblings, and other demands of the day.
In the summer of 2020, many boarding schools were reporting an uplift in UK applications. The reason given was the opportunity to participate in activities, away from the confinements of Covid-related lockdown.
But there is an important caveat. The range and depth of activities varies. Just because a school has boarders it doesn’t mean that they offer more activities than a day school.
The range and depth of activities on offer depends on the number of available (and interested) staff. Which is a budget issue.
And the number of available staff depends on the number of boarders, the mix of full to flexi boarders and whether or not relevant staff live on site. On average, the higher the number of boarders, the higher the proportion of full boarders and the higher the proportion of live-in staff, the better the activities.
What are the disadvantages of boarding?
I’ve mentioned cost, and the homogeneity of the social mix. But the main disadvantage is separation.
The more time your child spends boarding, the less influence you will have over their opinions, outlook, and development. Yes, part of this is the process of growing up. And yes, all children leave their parents at some point.
From time to time your child will seek advice, assurance, and reassurance. They may seek it at any time; not just on the daily phone call with you or on the exeat weekend. The longer the boarding period, the chances are that your child will be more influenced by people at school. That influence will be reasoned, pertinent and benign if a member of staff. But not necessarily all three if the influence is a friend or peer.
It is important to know who will be helping your child in moments of insecurity. That’s why many parents deem the house tutor or house parent as the most important factor in choosing a boarding school.
Boarding schools emphasise that it is not they who parent your child, but you. They are there in loco parentis. They do a great job of caring in your absence, and sometimes you might think that they do a better job of parenting than you!
Because they have your child’s welfare at heart, they will encourage regular communication with you and visits to the school. Ostensibly for fixtures on Saturdays and lunches on Sundays. Weekends with the family (weekly or exeats) do assume a certain significance. There is a pressure to cement the family unit with quality time together.
For the vast majority of boarding families this is all workable. Furthermore, many boarding families opt to maintain or extend the boarding experience during school holidays in sports or summer camps.
What about state boarding?
Most state boarding schools are comprehensive schools, there are some grammars, with boarding facilities. They have all the advantages of private boarding schools without two principle disadvantages. Cost and social mix.
The government pays for tuition fees, as with all state schools. Parents pay the boarding fees, which average at around £4,000 per term, half the independent school average.
They are open to any UK passport holder. But regular state school admissions criteria such as location still apply. Children tend to be representative of a broader cross-section of the UK population, than the uber-rich of some private schools.
How about being a day pupil at a boarding school?
Isn’t this the best of both worlds? Think of it; all those after school clubs and activities, homework done at school, evening meal at school. Maybe with a sleepover once or twice a week, and then home to relax with the family?
This is the way that independent schooling is going.
Of the 497 boarding schools, only 10 are purely boarding. All the rest have day pupils too. In fact, there are more boarders than day pupils in only 134 boarding schools. Which means that 73% of boarding schools potentially offer this “best of both worlds” package.
Not to be outsmarted, independent day schools without boarding facilities are also extending their days. After school care can include homework, evening meal and extended activities.
You’ll probably see references in school marketing to terms such as “flexi boarding”, “occasional boarding”, “day boarding”, “day school plus”, “extended day”, “flexi stay”, “sleepover” and so on. They are confusing and they mean something different to each school. But they are offering a valuable option and are worth investigating.
But, as you know, there’s no such thing as a win-win. There is a potential for conflict between day and boarding pupils in these hybrid schools. The tension is borne of jealousy or resentment from the boarders, and the day pupils feeling excluded from a clique. It’s a real management issue for the schools and how they manage it should become apparent from a school visit.
Schools are becoming more flexible and attuned to the realities of modern working families. After all, parents are working these hours to pay the school fees.