Public school redivivus

Hogwarts or hotel standards? Jim Kelly discovers why boarding schools are fashionable again

At the end of the 20th century, boarding schools seemed to be fading into stately obscurity. Draughty dormitories, inedible food and cold showers combined with a parental abhorrence for sending children away from home caused the number of UK boarders to fall from 110,000 in 1985 to 69,000 in 2000.

Then, slowly, the numbers began to rise. At the last count there were 74,000 boarders and, importantly, half of them had parents who had not boarded themselves. Some commentators suggested that this new generation was inspired by Harry Potter and his adventures at Hogwarts.

Michael Cuthbertson, the headmaster of Monkton Combe, near Bath, treats that with a pinch of salt, but adds: "It's true that all publicity is good publicity. The realities of boarding had already changed but the books and the films did give some street-cred. It made it ritzy." But what had really changed? Adrian Underwood, a director of the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA), says the fundamental revolution was in staffing. Housemasters and housemistresses, matrons and the rest were taught how to address themselves to modern issues like pastoral care, bullying, new laws on children's welfare, and adolscents' problems.

Such a change was in sharp contrast to the "sink or swim" attitudes of the Victorians. "This was important because parents wanted their children treated as individuals," says Underwood. "Mothers started saying they had an opinion on these things. It may have been Dad's old school but as far as they were concerned Dad was an idiot to have put up with it." The BSA estimates that just 20 per cent of boarders are "sent" away - the rest agree to go, a reverse of 20 years ago.

Then there were the buildings. "Parents looked at a lot of accommodation and said: 'You must be joking'", says Underwood. Dormitories have largely gone as a result, helping to transform the sector's image. Privacy, in areas such as washing, is now prized and children can elect for triple, double or single rooms - especially in the sixth form.

Meanwhile the "standard" facilities of a boarding school are unrecognisable to the post-war generation. Last year, schools spent £1,300 per boarder investing in bedrooms, swimming pools, gyms, dining halls and computer links in a bold effort to create a "home from home" environment, rather than the frosty boot camp of legend. And boarders are no longer as isolated as they once were. Access to phone and internet have made communication almost instant. Boarders stay away from home at most for a half term, others may board weekly, or even for two or three days a week. And the average time-distance between boarder and home is now 45 minutes - nothing like the endless journeys of the past.

But the biggest change has been in the lives of parents, not the children. The era of the dual-income professional couple, and the separated or divorced wage earner, has created a world in which many parents would not see much of their children if they were at home. This is the biggest factor which has helped to offset the guilt felt by many at sending children away. "Many parents say to me that they had not intended to have children board but that they recognised it was the best thing for them, and the family," says Cuthbertson.

There are still, however, a few clouds on the horizon. Last year, boarding-school fees rose an average 9.1 per cent, pushing many over the £20,000-a-year barrier and leading to what is being seen as an anomalous 1.4 per cent dip in overall numbers. The sector will have to concentrate on value for money if it is to resume its recovery.

Mrs Anne Gee is the deputy headmistress of Casterton School, near Kirkby Lonsdale - alma mater to the Brontë Sisters. It consistently gets high ratings in national surveys of value for money. Mrs Gee extols the virtues of a fee structure with "no hidden extras" - text books, for example, are included - but which still allows for investment in an array of first-class facilities that stay open at weekends, like the swimming pool. Investment has been crucial to the school's continued demand, and fees are now at £16,587 a year: "I know investment is important," Gee says, "I sign the cheques. The accommodation is better than they will find at university." A combination of modern standards and academic results (Casterton scored 430 university entrance points per pupil at A-level this year) looks set to ensure the sector thrives.

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