Boarding schools: Tom Brown's schooldays no more

It might seem unlikely, but demand for places at state boarding schools is growing says Hilary Wilce
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The Independent Online

Sending children to boarding school remains a popular option for many parents, despite the fact that fees have risen by 40 per cent over the past five years, and that average annual boarding fees are now almost £20,000, twice the average cost of a private day-school place.

The number of pupils who board has steadied over the past six years, and has even risen slightly this year, from 68,255 to 68,409. This is mainly due to a small rise in students coming from overseas, especially other European countries. "China is down and Hong Kong is down," says Hilary Moriarty, director of the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA). "But we are seeing more pupils coming from France and Spain, for example." Europeans are attracted by the fact that more schools offer the International Baccalaureate, and that boarding offers students the chance to immerse themselves in British life.

In addition, the Government is showing a new interest in boarding. "They have clearly realised that it has a lot to offer," says John Baugh, head master of the Dragon School, Oxford, and chairman of the BSA.

The 36 state boarding schools in England and Wales can bid for money from a £5m pot, announced last year, to update their boarding facilities, and the Government is exploring whether boarding, at either state or independent schools, might be good for vulnerable children.

This sustained interest reflects how boarding has become a far more attractive option for both children and busy parents. "Gone are the days of barrack-like dormitories. These days, there are more likely to be four in a room than 24, and many older pupils will have single-study accommodation with en-suite bathrooms," says Moriarty. "There's also more warmth than there used to be between staff and pupils, and much more home access. Plus, of course, there's e-mail and texting. The days of feeling that you've sent your child away have definitely gone."

At Haileybury, in Hertfordshire, the number of boarders has grown steadily over the past seven years, thanks to comfortable living conditions, good food, and a more flexible regime.

"Pupils are allowed home after games on Saturday, provided they are back by 8.45pm on Sunday, and that has been a major factor behind the increase in day-pupils opting for boarding," says Stuart Westley, the school's Master. "We have a lot of evening activities during the week, and they like being with friends."

Frances King, the headmistress of Heathfield St Mary's School, in Wantage and Ascot, a girls' school recently formed from the merger of two schools, says that boarding schools can also offer a wide variety of experiences. "My girls say that they like not having to wear make-up to breakfast, or worry about tensions in the classroom, and that they make deep friendships here.

"And when I ask 13-year-old girls from co-ed prep schools why they want to come here, they often say, in a world-weary way, that they're fed up with boys and want some space. And there are boys who need space from the girls, too!"

Boarding schools can offer children a chance to grow up within a community of strong traditions and values. At Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, the number of boys and girls choosing to board has risen by 8.5 per cent this year. Jonathan Hewat, the marketing manager at the school, says that this is partly to do with improved dormitories and the attractions of weekly boarding, but also to "our distinct feeling of community. We're a Jesuit college and our aim is to find God in all things. Our children come from many different backgrounds, but we are very keen that they all find and use their talents.

"Every child is nurtured, and we do a lot of charity work, driven by pupils. Twenty-five per cent of our pupils come from London and the South-east, and parents are willing to drive for four hours up the M6 to a northern boarding school because of what we offer."

"Schools now provide their own variety of boarding, whether full or weekly, or just sleep-over stays," says Baugh. "Some parents are traditional boarding parents, who often make great sacrifices to give their children the experience.

"Others might be new to boarding, but realise that it provides an excellent alternative to having a nanny ferrying their children around after school from one activity to another."