All aboard, once again

After decades of decline, boarding schools are enjoying a revival. Pupil numbers are rising and stylish new accommodation is being built. Hilary Wilce asks, what's prompted the change?
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The Independent Online

Rebecca Davis never imagined sending her daughter, Lucy, to boarding school, but then problems started to surface at her London girls' school, and Lucy herself started to talk about the possibility of going to a co-educational prep school. So last year Davis switched her to The King's Junior School, outside Canterbury, and has been thrilled at the result.

"Lucy's just turned 13. She's thriving, doing a lot more with herself, talking about playing the cello and taking singing lessons. She's won a scholarship to the senior school, and has even joined the Scottish fencing squad - I'm Scottish. It's a lovely life. The staff care about each child as an individual, and the facilities are phenomenal. And I can see that there's a lot less pressure to see this or that television programme, or spend three quarters of an hour on the phone discussing why someone's hair is so bad, than there was in London."

As a result, some of Lucy's peers are wondering about similar moves, and Davis, who is remarried after divorcing Lucy's father and who works in the City, says she could foresee a real revival in boarding among London parents. "For one thing it's so safe. No matter how carefully you look after your teenager, they are likely to get mugged in London at some point. And the cost of a nanny these days would easily pay for two children at boarding school. And then these schools are very, very good with children of average ability. London schools are so competitive, unnecessarily so, and although that wasn't a problem for Lucy, some children find it terribly difficult."

In contrast, Kate Kewley, 18, moved to board at Rugby School for the sixth form to get away from living deep in the country, where friends were always a journey away. "I'd been at my day school in Oxford for seven years and fancied a change. I thought it would be nice to go from a single-sex school to a mixed one. And I thought if I boarded I'd have all my friends on tap."

Two years later she knows she was right. "I was nervous when I came, but I'm really enjoying it. It's been great to have more independence, and the girls' houses are really nice. There are bean bags, and a big common room, and Sky TV, and cakes laid on at all hours. In some ways it exceeds what you have at home."

Boarding schools are seeing something of a revival. Not much of one, it's true. Boarding figures have crept up by 1.12 per cent this year - a mere 774 extra bodies in beds. But after decades of decline, this is significant, especially when the majority of the increase is home-grown - only 353 of these newcomers were from overseas. And boarding schools are responding with a splurge of refurbishment. At the Blue Coat School, Birmingham's last-remaining boarding prep school, houses have been upgraded by interior designers. Shiplake College, Henley-on-Thames, has built a £2m upper sixth form house, with self-contained flats, and other schools are upgrading facilities to pull in the new punters they are sure are out there. State boarding schools, which charge parents boarding fees only, have also noticed increasing interest in their services (see for more information on state boarding schools).

So why is something many associate with the Edwardian era regaining ground? Kevin Cheney, headmaster of Millfield Preparatory School, in Somerset, which is also investing in new boarding houses and an equestrian centre, lists several reasons. First, he says, when both parents are working, family life gets squeezed. And even when parents do spend time with their children, that time is often spent trapped in traffic jams, driving from one place to another. Second, there are many more divorced parents now, and boarding school provides stability for children from divided homes. And third, the modern "bean-pole" family, where older parents have a single child, can be a lonely place for a child to grow up in. Boarding school puts back the companionship that is missing. Also, he points out, children really enjoy it. "It is very rare for us to have someone come here and not settle down and love what we have to offer."

Seeing his pupils playing cricket after school, on a May afternoon in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, it is easy to see why. The picture is of a more innocent and bucolic age, when children were safe, happy, healthy and carefree. However, at more than £15,000 a year per child, this Fifties idyll is out of the reach of most parents, while many who could afford it, says Cheney, "have absolutely no perception of what it is like, and can't imagine sending their children away." Guilt still often stays the chequebook hand of many an over-stressed parent.

But modern boarding is a world away from the stone floors and shared baths of yesterday, and can often provide more of a home than home itself. "It annoys me when people talk about Tom Brown's School Days," says Dr Stephen Winkley, head of Uppingham School, in Rutland, and chair of the Boarding Schools' Association. "You don't say, about bicycles, 'That Penny Farthing looks so uncomfortable'."

Today's boarders get every comfort. Their rooms are a riot of bright duvets and teen posters. The staff who look after them do their best to make things relaxed and homely. Sport, drama and music are on tap. Mobile phones have revolutionised communications. And many boarders see their parents every weekend - with much more to talk about, their parents say.

As a result, it can be children themselves who press to board. "I'd say 25 per cent of the approaches to us are initiated by the children," says Dr Winkley. "They hear good things about boarding, and ask if they can look at some schools. Mum and Dad are often pretty baffled. They didn't go to boarding schools themselves, and don't know what it's all about."

The Harry Potter books might have something to do with this. Because although the Gothic halls of Hogwarts are a world away from today's stripped pine bunk beds and Saturday night movies, the books conjure up an atmosphere of companionship and community that modern children clearly hunger for. But a significant part of boarding growth is among older students, switching to board for sixth form, who see that the relaxed rules and sixth form bars of today's boarding schools mean that their advantages outweigh their restrictions.

Geoffrey Chapman, the headmaster of Queen Margaret's School, a girls' school in York, says boarding is an excellent preparation for later life. "Our sixth formers make their own decisions about crucial things like smoking, drinking and boys."

And although he, like all heads in this field, is nervous about what fee hikes and economic recession might mean to this fragile growth in boarding figures, the number of enquiries from interested parents, he says, is showing no sign of diminishing.

'You make good friends, and it makes you more independent'

Millfield School, in Somerset, the country's biggest co-educational boarding school, is the new face of boarding. It has just invested £18m in building eight new boarding houses and refurbishing others.

The new houses are warm and bright, with individual study bedrooms for sixth formers, and tiny en suite shower rooms for upper sixth formers. Each room is wired for internet access and has good storage space, and every house has a variety of common rooms, plus a communal kitchen where students can make snacks and gather around a long wooden table, much like they might at home.

Together the new buildings cluster on the edge of a magnificent modern campus, which is surrounded by sports facilities and dotted with sculptures, giving the whole place more of an air of a thriving new university than of a school.

"The quality of the old boarding accommodation just wasn't good enough," says Peter Johnson (above), Millfield's headmaster. "Then there was the question of the work ethic. If you give people good rooms, then they've got good conditions to work in. Lots of our pupils will tell you that the best thing about having their own room is that they can have an early night if they want it." The "Wow factor" of these and other new facilities also helps to sell the school to parents, he says, although only alongside other things such as good pastoral care, the school's top sporting reputation, and its average class sizes of 10 to 11 pupils.

"Facilities go hand in hand with boarding," says Yorke O'Leary, 17, who left his London grammar school to do A-levels at the school. "I came here because I wanted to use them. I can go for a swim, or use the gym any time I want to. At home I'd have to get on a bus to do the same things." Also, he says, the regular nightly study times keep his work on track.

Julian Speed, 17, agrees. In Paris, where his parents live, he wasn't doing so well at school. Here, although he kicks against the petty regulations of being a boarder, "I know it has put me on the right path."

Emma Berryman, 17, boards even though home is only 15 minutes away. "When we moved nearer the school my parents gave me a choice of living at home or staying on as a boarder. I decided to stay on. The general atmosphere is so nice. You make good friends, and you can spend more time with them. I also think it makes you more independent. You learn to get on with things. You sort your own washing out, and make your own decisions."

Housemasters at Millfield school say boarding has changed out of all recognition over recent years. There is now a more relaxed atmosphere. Mobile phones and parental visits keep families in constant touch. And pupils come from a much broader cross-section of backgrounds than they did before.

As for modern parents, they say, they particularly welcome knowing that their children are in a safe environment, and being able to hand over matters of discipline to staff who are experienced at dealing with today's stroppy teens.