'You work harder as a boarder'

State boarding schools are topping the league tables. Does being away from home make a difference? Diana Hinds visits Reading School to find out
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The Independent Online

Chris Briggs, 15, started at Reading School as a day-boy, but became a boarder two years ago. He is in no doubt about the advantages of boarding: "You definitely work harder as a boarder. It's a lot easier to work with people your own age around you. At home, you've got two parents to help you out, but with boarding, you've got 30 to 40 people to help you. You're living with your friends 24/7. It's a bit like one big sleep-over."

Reading School is one of the country's 32 state boarding schools, which provide free education, but charge boarding fees of £6,000-£7,000 a year. The school was founded in around 1125 by the Benedictine monks of Reading Abbey, and in 1486, at the express wish of Henry VII, it became a Free Grammar School. After a later spell as a public school, Reading reverted to grammar-school status under the 1944 Education Act, and has remained so ever since. The school now has 850 boys on roll, aged 11 to 18, including around 80 weekly boarders.

As a highly selective grammar school, with strong teaching and excellent academic traditions, it is not so very surprising that Reading School last summer found itself top of the grammar-school table (compiled by The Independent) for best GCSE results. But one begins to look a little harder when, in December 2003, Reading School came second in the first "added value" league tables, showing what the school is able to do with the children coming in at 11.

Clearly, not all boarding schools perform equally well. But the suspicion persists: does a boarding element - allied to an able intake, a committed staff, and high standards of teaching and learning - actually contribute to a school's success? Is there something special about boarding?

Andrew Linnell, head teacher (and head of boarding) at Reading School, believes that there is: "I have taught in grammar schools, secondary moderns and comprehensives, and in my experience, boarding does add something. It's to do with all the extra-curricular activities, and the way in which there is never a time when nothing is going on. The fact that 12 staff and 80 boys live here creates a different sort of community. There is a feeling of intimacy, and also the sense that the school is very safe and secure - because it never closes down."

Dwpinder Gill, aged 16, from India, is in his first year as a boarder: "Before I came here, I thought I wouldn't mix with people very well, but it has been quite nice. It feels like a family." Ben Morris, aged 12, says that he found being a boarder difficult at first: "It takes a bit of time to settle in. But the older boys give you a lot of support when you get homesick, and when you need help."

The boarders at Reading School live in two Victorian boarding houses adjoining the main school, and because numbers are relatively small, and the boarding management fairly relaxed and non-hierarchical, the boys are encouraged to mix across years.

Younger boys sleep in dormitories of three or four, but from Year 9, most boys have their own room. There are orange-painted television rooms and games rooms, and two large dining-rooms, incorporating the odd computer and piano. ("Obviously, we don't have sing-songs round the piano, but people will often play, and it makes quite a good background," explains Steven Young, 16). The accommodation is on the plain side, certainly no frills, but boys say that it is comfortable - and too warm more often than too cold.

After school - when many day-boys might be switching on their PlayStations - the boarders have the run of the school grounds, for communal games of Manhunt (a version of chase), as well as football or cricket. "I would definitely watch more TV if I was at home," says Young.

When it comes to competitions between the school houses - in sport, music or drama - the house with the boarders in it invariably wins, because the boarders put in more after-hours practise. "In house competitions, the boarders are our gold standard," says Andrew Linnell.

Older boarders help younger boys by supervising their homework sessions: "It's good boarding," says Carl Haynes, 12. "If you don't know how to do your prep, you can ask one of the senior boys to help you with it." Younger boys may also be paired with a sixth-former to give them one-to-one help with a specific subject. Haynes, for instance, has an English "mentor" in year 13, "because I'm weak on punctuation".

The idea of mentoring began life at Reading School as something to help the boarders, but has developed over the last 10 years into a fully-fledged mentoring scheme that operates throughout the school, in English, maths and science, for day-boys and boarders alike.

"Boarding helps the day school, and the day school helps boarding - they feed off each other," says Alan Sturrock, senior boarding housemaster, and geography and PE teacher. "The ethos comes from both: if one was to go, the other would not be so successful".

Boarding staff provide strong support and structure for boys who need it, but in general, boarders learn to organise themselves and take responsibility for their work, compared to the day-boys, who have more done for them by parents. "The boarders cope noticeably better with the transition to university, for example, because it is not really a transition for them," says Linnell.

If they are to flourish, boarders need a highly individualised approach to their learning, suited to their strengths and abilities, Linnell says. Individualised learning is what the school offers to all its pupils: "We're quite tolerant of wacky or eccentric types; they all fit in. The richness of our extra-curricular programme - which has grown with the boarding - enables boys to realise that they can achieve in other ways, outside of lessons: it might be team work, for example, or leadership skills, or talents such as playing jazz trombone. All of this raises self-esteem and makes people more purposeful."

This is perhaps what David Miliband, Minister for School Standards, had in mind when he paid tribute to the "distinctive contribution" made by state boarding schools, in a speech to the SBSA conference in January 2004. These schools, he said, offer high standards - with 87 per cent performing above the national average at GCSE last year. But they also provide "the opportunity to develop the whole child, giving students a real chance of fulfilling their individual potential, with learning personalised according to their needs, aspirations and abilities".

The Minister was sufficiently impressed to double the annual capital allocation for school wear-and-tear, raising it to approximately £144 per boarding student. While this is fairly modest in itself, the SBSA is hopeful that further support could be forthcoming. As Linnell says: "In the past, we have felt that schools such as ours were on the outside. But now, the Government is taking more interest in us."