Boarding schools: 'Mum, I want to leave home'

Children are no longer 'sent away' to school - more and more are asking to board
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Lauren's experience is typical of the modern boarder in that not only did she choose to board - rather than being "sent away" - but also because her parents hadn't boarded themselves. According to the Boarding Schools Association, more than half of all boarders starting school this term have no boarding in their background, while around 80 per cent claim it was either their idea, or a joint decision with their parents, to board.

According to Clarissa Farr, president of the Girls' School Association and principal of Queenswood, boarding is newly relevant to a different generation of parents. Those with high-powered jobs, involving lots of responsibility and travel, recognise their children can enjoy a richer experience at boarding school than staying in a frenetic domestic situation. Others realise that difficult commutes, sometimes involving two hours a day of traffic jams or public transport, are eating into precious childhood years.

Kate Evans, 17, a pupil at Haberdashers' Monmouth School for Girls, started to board in her GCSE year because it was proving difficult to juggle schoolwork, sports, her parents' busy jobs and the school run.

"I wanted to board because life was very hectic and we were rushing around everywhere," says Kate. "My grades have definitely improved because I have more time."

It can be a very difficult decision for parents, however. "I was shocked when my daughter said she wanted to board," recalls one mother, whose successful and independent-minded daughter is now off to university. "I'd never even considered it as an option but she was set on it and absolutely loved it. It was me who had more trouble getting used to it."

Parents unsettled by the idea of boarding now have a range of options to choose from. Whereas a generation ago, everybody knew what "boarding" meant, today it is a far more elastic term. Full boarders are away from home for a term, but many schools also offer a weekly option, where pupils may go home some or all weekends. Some schools even allow day pupils to board for just one or two nights a week.

This flexibility has reassured families new to boarding and stabilised the numbers of boarders at around 74,000 (about 30 per cent down on the tally of 20 years ago). Multi-million pound investments in new buildings and facilities are a signal that schools expect numbers to hold steady, or even grow. This is, however, becoming a very specialist sector.

"Looking ahead, there are going to be fewer schools, not fewer boarders," says Adrian Underwood of the Boarding Schools Association. "Over the past seven years, we have lost about 20 to 30 schools that offered a boarding facility."

A number of factors have contributed to this decline: the armed services used to account for around 25,000 boarders, a number that has now dropped to 5,000, while overseas pupils have been deterred by new visa fees and rules. Prep schools have been hard hit (parents are less keen to send young children away to school) and this has reduced the feed of boarder-ready entrants to secondary schools.

Some prep schools have rethought the boarding model. St Andrew's School in Eastbourne, for example, pioneered the "sleepover" to supplement its full and weekly boarding service. Busy parents can book their day pupil in for the odd night, which, at £24, compares favourably to baby-sitting rates. It has proved a popular option.

But some schools are withdrawing from boarding. The Blue Coat School in Birmingham did so in July: its accommodation buildings are now being turned into teaching space.

It seems to be those schools with a clear commitment to boarding, and a real sense of their strengths, that are doing best in a competitive market. Millfield in Somerset, the largest co-educational boarding school in the UK, with more than 900 boarders, is a strong proponent of full-time boarding: its pupils are not allowed to leave for the weekend until after 4.30pm on a Saturday. St Mary's Roman Catholic School in Ascot, which is equally committed to full-time boarding (95 per cent of its girls are present at weekends) and puts the chapel at the heart of the school, is oversubscribed. When it comes to boarding, there are options to suit all tastes.