An answer for working parents

Britain's state boarding schools were declining in number, but interest is on the rise, says Caitlin Davies

Parents looking for schools with good academic reputations - and who work such long hours that they barely see their children during the week - are turning to state boarding schools for the stability and supervision they believe their children need. And for this they are willing to pay between £3,500 and £7,300 a year.

Unlike private boarding schools at state boarding schools the teaching is free. To the State Boarding School Association (SBSA), this is a major selling point.

While the overall boarding population in the UK is far less than it was in the Eighties and Nineties, there's been an increase in occasional boarders, who spend four nights a week at school. "There is more interest in boarding," says Val Bowers, the marketing officer at the SBSA. "State boarding suits the modern family way with both parents working and the children living with friends at school."

State boarding schools are also becoming better at marketing themselves. Many of the state boarding school's websites read more like hotel brochures, listing good food and accommodation, a family atmosphere and extra curricula activities ranging from horse riding to Scalextric clubs. Britain's 32 state boarding schools tend to be clustered in southern England, although they can also be found in Keswick in Cumbria and in St Brigid's, north Wales. Most are mixed and cater for 11-18-year-olds. They include academically selective grammar schools, comprehensives, agricultural schools and incorporated further-education colleges. Size varies, with boarding places ranging from 27 to 450.

Fifty years ago there were many more state boarding schools. Most of them were grammar schools with a boarding house for children from rural areas, but as transport improved there was less need for boarding places. Bowers estimates, however, that every address in Britain has a state boarding school within 100 miles, and often less than 60 miles. She intends to send her two boys to state boarding school once they reach 11, and the one she has in mind is just 16 miles from home. "State boarding provides teenagers with a fabulous social experience," says Bowers, "and boarders tend to do better academically than day students. Yes, they have the facilities to study, but there is also a strong work ethic at boarding schools - it's cool to do well," says Bowers

The association is proud that some state boarding schools did well in the Government's value-added league tables. A top school is Skegness Grammar in Lincolnshire, which traces its origins back to 1422 and whose website describes a "commitment to academic rigour, hard work, good behaviour, smart appearance and good manners."

Critics have dismissed the tables as meaningless, especially when it comes to measuring the progress made in schools that don't select on academic ability. Bowers's response is that "all thinking parents realise that league tables have their pros and cons, but it is reassuring to know state boarding schools are doing so well".

Angela Daly, the chair of the SBSA and head of Cranbrook School in Kent, agrees that boarders do well academically. She attributes this to supervised prep and the fact that teachers are always on hand. Like Bowers, she says interest in state boarding is on the rise and advises parents to look at schools at least 18 months before they want their child to attend.

"Take an average child and send them to boarding school," promises Bowers, "and they will be aspiring to things they had not even thought about before. Parents describe us as education's best kept secret." This latter comment is what Cheryl Gillan, the former under-secretary of state at the DfES, said in 1996 when there were five more such schools than there are now.

To Daly there remain two strong reasons for choosing state boarding. One is that it is far less expensive than private schools, and the second is that it is more egalitarian. "Our students are not rich and there is a wider cross-section of pupils. It is a good place to go if parents are keen for their children not to be elitist," she says.

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