Boarding school won’t suit everyone. But you don’t always have to board to enjoy the benefits.
You’re still reading because, however uncomfortably you’re swallowing the prospect of the expense, you’re swallowing it nonetheless. This post will touch on some of the softer considerations for boarding. Should I send my child to a boarding school? What sort of child thrives at a boarding school? Is great extra-curricular a given? Who will look after my child? And an option for the half way house; enjoying the benefits of boarding without boarding.
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.
So that leaves 42,000, or 51%, of the total boarding population of 83,000 pupils. These are the children whose parents could have chosen a day school, but instead chose boarding.
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.
Do boarders have to be independent and resilient?
There is an age and maturity aspect to independence and resilience as well as personality. That’s why 86% of UK boarders are at senior school. Of the 14% in junior school, 70% are in Years 7 and 8 of prep school. 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).
Beware the cliché of a boarding school being the making of someone or toughening them up. If your child is interested, outgoing and personable they’ll probably enjoy boarding school. If they are meek, introverted or clingy, they probably won’t.
The biggest draw of boarding school is 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.
But there is an important caveat. The range and depth of activities varies. And 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.
In loco parentis maybe, but who is raising your child?
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, but absence has a price. For the parents of the 42,000, it’s a price worth paying for all the other benefits of boarding.
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 do emphasise that it is not they who parent your child but you. 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 with sports or summer camps where boarders meet up and stay with their chums en masse.
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 517 boarding schools, only 16 are purely boarding. All the rest have day pupils too. In fact, there are more boarders than day pupils in only 140 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, they are working these hours to pay school fees!