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What's it like to board?

State boarding schools are opening their doors to answer that question, writes Caitlin Davies

Picture a boarding school and what do you see? Vast dormitories, iron bedsteads and grim scenes from Nicholas Nickleby? Well, now you have the chance to find out how wrong you are as 32 state boarding schools across the UK open their doors for a fortnight. For those who are not even aware that boarding exists in the state sector, this is an opportunity to taste modern boarding school life. "Our visitors will be able to see the camaraderie in the dorms and the social side of things, they can see music rehearsals, participate in on going sporting events, and generally have a look around," says Melvyn Roffe, the head of Old Swinford Hospital School in Stourbridge. And for many visitors the biggest surprise is to see that, come 8.30 at night, there are still several hundred people at school.

This is the third time state boarding schools have held an open fortnight and both parents and children are welcome. Val Bowers, marketing officer at the State Boarding Schools' Association (SBSA), advises parents to take a look at the group's website (www.sbsa.org.uk), see which schools are an easy commute, and find out what events they have planned. Most schools will be offering a tour of facilities and boarding dorms, with visitors shown around by students ready to answer any questions. The fortnight runs from Saturday 2 October to Saturday 16 October.

Roffe, who is also the new chair of the SBSA, says one aim of the fortnight is to break down preconceptions about what goes on at state boarding schools. "Ask ten people on the street and nine have no clue there is boarding in the state sector," he says, "We need to raise our visibility." The Department for Education and Skills also says it's a common myth that boarding is only offered in private schools and that the maintained boarding schools sector is "an attractive and affordable" alternative.

Roffe says boarding has changed enormously in recent years, with dorm rooms now resembling university halls of residence. At Old Swinford the regime has changed as well, with discipline less stringent than many people fear, and an emphasis on "civilized values" with a give and take philosophy. And with staff and students living in such close proximity, relationships have to be friendly.

Most state boarding schools are mixed and cater for 11-18 year olds. They include academically selective grammar schools, comprehensives, agricultural schools and incorporated further-education colleges. Many of the SBSA schools have strong academic reputations, like Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire. This is the only state boarding school that offers solely the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form, with an average pass rate of 92 per cent. It is ranked as one of the most improved schools in the country and last year was awarded an overall rating of excellent by Ofsted.

Apart from promoting academic excellence, the SBSA is keen to see a shift away from boarding schools' elitist image. As the fees are considerably less than at independent boarding schools, this means they are more accessible. According to Roffe, it's inevitable therefore that state boarding is more socially inclusive.

Last year the number of boarding students in the independent sector fell for the first time in three years. A chief reason for this is cost, with many schools now charging £20,000 or more a year. But, perhaps in response to this, there has been an increase in interest in the state sector. "We have parents who tour one of our schools and think, wow! I get all this at a third of the cost of a private school," says Bowers. Fees at SBSA schools are around £6,500 a year - and the teaching, of course, is free.

And don't worry if you feel that sending your child to boarding school means you're resigning your responsibilities as a parent. Roffe says the latest trend in weekly boarding means a chance to combine high quality childcare with high quality education. "It's easier than shuttling children between school and activities and you have real quality time at the weekends," he says, "State boarding actually improves family life."