Why it's now cool to be a boarder

The International Baccalaureate, and the chance to learn English, has led to an upsurge of interest in boarding schools, says Anne McHardy
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Bedford High School is introducing the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma this September to return some fun to the sixth form and move away from constant examination, says the director of studies, Julie Pendry. But an important secondary consideration is to attract more of the new breed of boarding pupils from western Europe who have given their boarding numbers a dramatic boost in recent years.

The school has 900 girls, 100 of them boarders. Of that 100, 88 are in the sixth form. The percentage and the character of boarders has changed over the years. It was once daughters of diplomats and the Hong Kong police force, according to Ms Pendry. Boarding then went into a decline. "In the last five to eight years we have seen a huge upsurge and a much more international mix," she explains. "We have 15 nationalities now. With the IB, we are increasing our west-European boarders. Mostly, the girls are coming to do the IB and to improve their English. A lot of European families, German and Swiss parents in particular, are seeing this as a positive step,".

Bedford High gained its IB accreditation last October from Geneva. Language is an integral part of it. The qualification really does guarantee breadth in a way that AS-levels cannot, according to those who support it. The IB was devised by educationalists and not politicians. That is the crux of it, says Ms Pendry.

Bedford High is not alone in discovering this new pool of boarders from Europe. At Sevenoaks School, in Kent, which has been offering the IB diploma for 25 years, the director of studies, Graham Lacey, says: "We get more applications from Germans than we can admit. The key to the success of internationalism is to establish the right balance between national groups. We also get Indians and Kenyans."

This year, of its 422 sixth-form pupils, of whom 206 are boarders, 380 are doing the IB.

Mr Lacey says that it was hard to distinguish whether it was the school's policy of teaching the IB – it will phase A-levels out by 2006 – that attracts pupils or the fact that it was co-ed. But, he says, the most competitive point of entry was girls of 16 wanting to board. "We get three times as many applications as places. Some are coming from girls' schools in the UK and they want a co-ed experience, some from abroad, either foreign nationals or expats who have an international focus and see the value of the IB."

Neither is the phenomenon of pupils from other European countries unique to the independent sector. Llandrillo College, a big further-education college that has its main campus in Colwyn Bay, on the north-Wales coast, also finds that the IB, which it has offered for the past 10 years, attracts an international contingent who board with local families. Overseas students make up about 10 per cent of its IB students. Most are Swedes, with some Greeks, all funded by the European Community.

Melanie Monteith, the Llandrillo IB co-ordinator, says that the college has 50 IB students and 250 sitting A-levels. "The independent schools have an audience that is aware of the IB anyway. We are getting a lot of local interest and increasing interest from overseas as well. It is lovely to have the international influence."

Nationally, the dramatic fall of the past 20 years in the number of pupils boarding appears to have slowed down, according to 2001 school census figures. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the international pupils are helping to make the difference, although the census shows an overall drop in foreign boarders in 2001 of 2.06 per cent. Last year, there was the lowest decline ever in boarding numbers, at 0.8 per cent, and the number of girls boarding rose for the first time ever. Again, the change is tiny, at 0.02 per cent, but Isis, the independent schools' advisory service, sees the change as significant, according to its joint national director, Richard Davidson.

Boarding as a percentage of the national school population is tiny. It is small even as a percentage of the 577,000 pupils in the country's 2,400 independent schools, which educate between them 6.9 per cent of all school pupils. Eighty per cent of independent pupils are in the 1,300 Isis member schools, which include the best-known public schools. Many of the non-Isis members are small, often family-run prep schools. Isis has 513 boarding schools and, of the boarding population, 20 per cent currently come from abroad. A growing number of schools offer the IB.

"Germany has certainly become a very significant source of overseas boarders, and some parts of the Far East, Hong Kong and mainland China, are producing increased numbers of overseas recruits, says Mr Davidson. "In any case, abundant anecdotal evidence from schools makes us confident that the 2001 census was not wrong in suggesting that domestic demand for boarding may now be becoming much firmer, after a long and debilitating decline."