Hotel-quality bedrooms and flexible 'sleep-over' arrangements are helping boarding schools to leave behind their boiled cabbage and cold showers image and turn around the fall in pupil numbers

THE HORRORS of a boarding school education have provided a rich seam of material for British writers. To give but a few examples: Evelyn Waugh's doorless lavatories at Lancing College ("both inadequate in number and to my mind indelicately exposed"), George Orwell's hellish prep school where he encountered a turd in the (unheated) swimming pool and David Niven's experiences at a ghastly establishment near Worthing. ("I got a large and painful boil as a result of the bad food," he recalled in his autobiography. "'Oh!' said the matron,' that's nothing, don't make such a fuss!' and lopped off the top of it with a pair of scissors. The ensuing infection was pretty horrible and put me in hospital.")

None of these writers would recognise institutions like Queen Ethelburga's College near York, the first independent school to advertise on national television. Although the boarding school sector as a whole has lost a fifth of its pupils over the past seven years, Queen Ethelburga's claims to have reversed this trend and increased its boarders by 206 per cent over the same period. Pupils are enticed by its hotel-style rooms with phones, music centres, televisions and videos. It's a far cry from St Trinian's.

The attempts of Queen Ethelburga's to throw off the taint of cold showers and over-boiled cabbage is not unique, says Rosalind McCarthy, head of Cobham Hall school near Cobham in Kent, which takes girls between the ages of 11 and 18. With her beautifully cut blond hair, elegant soft grey suit and modern silver jewellery, Mrs McCarthy is far from the tweedy, dowdy, cane-wielding boarding school teacher stereotype. "Rules, regulations and coldness are part of the past, they are outdated," she says. "It doesn't happen any more. Society has changed. And parents are not just looking for a five-star hotel for their children; they are looking for high standards of pastoral care, safety and security."

Cobham Hall itself is spectacular; the seat until the 1960s of the Earls of Darnley, it is a stately home of mixed Elizabethan and 18th century architecture, set in 142 acres of parkland, now awash with daffodils. The younger girls are housed in the main building, in cheerful study bedrooms decorated with posters (Leonardo DiCaprio, Hansen and Tom Cruise seem to be in favour). School assemblies and plays take place in the Gilt Hall, with its gilded carvings, and everywhere marble fireplaces and family portraits abound. (The ceiling of the computer room bears the arms of Queen Elizabeth I; it was specially decorated for a visit she did not in the end make, and now looks down on PC screens.) More modern buildings house the sixth form, the science labs, the art studios, the sports hall and the indoor heated swimming pool.

Although 97 per cent of Cobham Hall's pupils go on to universities or college, academic success is not the only criterion by which a boarding- school education is judged, according to Mrs McCarthy. "Cobham girls have an edge - they have confidence and a certain attitude that stands them in very good stead in later life."

The image of the once-weekly tear-stained letter begging to be allowed home is history, she adds: "With phones and faxes, it's easy to keep in touch. One or two of the girls have mobiles, though they aren't allowed to use them in class or in prep, and they all have individual voice-mail where their parents can contact them at any time."

In fact, she says, far from the boarders pleading to be let out, the school's day-girls often want to stay overnight, to take part in after- hours activities, while the weekly boarders are often keen to stay for the weekend. "The girls have coined the term 'weekendly boarder'," she says. "The very word boarding has a cold sound to it, though it's a word we have to retain. I like the term 'sleep-over' schools. Although it's a bit casual and American, it's quite true that the children here do sleep over with their friends, just as they would do at home."

THERE are signs that this kind of flexible approach may be helping boarding schools to turn a tricky corner. While the vast majority of boarding schools have charitable status, they still have to balance their books. Dick Davison, joint director of the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis), says that while pupil numbers are still falling, there are distinct signs that the trend is levelling off. Last year's 2.4 per cent fall was the smallest in 10 years. An Isis survey also shows that advance registrations for boarders are steady in almost half of schools and up in more than a quarter..

"Five years ago everybody feared going into free-fall, particularly in the prep school sector, where pupils were haemorrhaging at a rate of 10 per cent per year," says Dick Davison. "That clearly isn't happening. Boarding schools have done what all sensible businesses do when the market is running against them - they have adopted modern business practices." To this end, 200 boarding schools, including big names such as Marlborough and Uppingham, have formed the Boarding Education Alliance, to pool their resources and are investing in a large-scale public relations campaign. "There was a strong feeling that the image of boarding schools hadn't changed for 40 years," says Ann Williamson, campaign director. "Research we commissioned found that yes, there was a problem, yes, there were misunderstandings, and that a lot of 40- and 50-year-olds do not have good memories of boarding school. We have to get across that it's not like that any more, and bring to parents' notice what is on offer that their children will thoroughly enjoy."

Meanwhile the Boarding Schools Association is working on extending training schemes to offer qualifications in pastoral care as well as academic teaching, and hopes to introduce a nationwide code of practice.

As well as consciousness-raising, another key factor that will encourage parents to choose boarding is the kind of flexible approach that exists at Cobham Hall - "some schools call it occasional boarding, sleep-over boarding, Friday night boarding, but there is no doubt that it is a rapidly rising trend. The children themselves create the demand," Mr Davison says. Another encouraging development, he says, is that surveys carried out by Isis show that pupils who are already at boarding school, and their parents, have very positive views of the experience.

Traditionally, boarding schools have often been the choice of parents who live abroad, but this too is changing. Roger Mountford has a daughter of 15 at Cobham Hall. "Though we have lived abroad, we are now wholly resident in the UK - we live a 45-minute drive away from the school," he says. "I didn't board, nor did my wife, so we aren't continuing any family tradition. We made a conscious decision to pick a boarding school because we decided it was a fuller experience - not just attending classes and doing exams, but being part of a wide-ranging community and learning to live with other people." His daughter first encountered the school over an introductory weekend. "When my wife went to pick her up, she said 'I'd start tomorrow!' The school has done a terrific job for her."

AS BOARDING schools upgrade their facilities, they have discovered a lucrative way of augmenting their funds: letting out their premises in the holidays. "There is no interest if facilities are not up to scratch," Mr Davison of Isis says. "Summer schools and courses are a great income earner," says Paul High, chairman of the Boarding Schools Association and headmaster of Priors Court School in Newbury. "Letting out facilities that are lying idle for a third of the year can help to keep boarding fees lower." Schools are mostly hired for conferences, summer schools and residential courses; there are other out-of-term uses, however. Cobham Hall school has a wedding licence and is available for marriages. Paul High says that his school has been hired by Christian groups. "They were baptising children in our swimming pool."

Boarding school life may be shedding its austere image at a rapid rate, but it is still not for everyone. For some, cost is a barrier; a good school will cost upwards of pounds 4,000 a term. For other children, communal living just doesn't work, no matter how luxurious it is.

Tim and Anna Wilkins recently withdrew their 12-year-old son from full- time boarding. "He is an only child, we live in a smallish village where there are hardly any children of his own age, and we thought he might like to be with other children during school time," Mrs Wilkins says. "Also, we thought the 40-minute bus journey to school was too large a chunk out of the day."

They visited a number of schools before making a choice. "The facilities were excellent, particularly for sports, and we were very impressed with the staff and the trips that were offered at the weekend. They were always off to the cinema, hiking, to football matches. But in the end it just didn't work out. Our son just didn't like being with hordes of other children." Although he was persuaded to stick it out for a term, he preferred to commute. "He hated sharing a room especially, and he missed his dog."

Isis: 0171 630 8793. Boarding Education Alliance: 0181 460 4357, website: www.boarding.org

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