Dawn breaks over Wainfleet Hall, a country house set in tranquil Lincolnshire parkland. Its sleepy inhabitants are woken with a 6.45am call and, after a hearty breakfast, set off to the local train station. No, they're not holiday makers; they're boarding students at Skegness Grammar School, whose website reads somewhat like a hotel brochure. The school has extensive grounds, tasty meals, and a new 52-inch plasma TV in the sitting-room.
State boarding schools, where the teaching is free and the boarding costs far less than the independent sector, are undergoing something of a revival. There are now 35 state schools with boarding facilities, with 22 offering the chance to board during the week only. Boarding at a state school costs around £7,000 a year, which is equivalent to a single term's fees in the independent sector.
Most are heavily oversubscribed, according to the State Boarding Schools Association (SBSA), with as many as five applications for every sixth form place. At Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire, for example, there were 119 applications from girls this year – and only 24 spaces.
"In general the demand is because boarding suits modern parents," says Hilary Moriarty, national director of the Boarding Schools Association. "If both parents work long hours, perhaps with frequent business trips abroad, who looks after the children?"
Moriarty believes parents also see a better climate for learning in the state boarding sector. "Parents think, 'I could send my child to the state school at the end of the road and he might get stabbed coming home, or he can go to a state boarding school and be playing football at 9pm on a floodlit pitch.'"
State boarding schools are known for their strong academic results. This is due in part to supervised prep, which can run for two hours each evening. "Sending your child to boarding school is better than them coming home at 4pm to an empty house," says Moriarty. The number of deaths of young people on the streets this year – and the media coverage – has stoked parents' fears, she thinks. Boarding, she says, is seen as a safe haven.
Malcolm Lloyd, chair of the SBSA and head of Brymore School in Somerset, is a former boarder who attended an independent school in Suffolk because his parents decided the local alternative in South-east London was not to their liking. Being a boarder taught him how to make a bed with hospital corners, clean his shoes, get on with people 24 hours a day, speak in public, and organise himself and others. "I was also able to excel at sport and make friends for life," he says.
Brymore recently received £3.4m to build new boarding accommodation., without which the school would have been in danger of closing.
Now the Department for Children, Schools and Families has announcedthat it is making £10m available over the next three years to support the expansion of state boarding. In particular, it believes that new places could help vulnerable children, by providing stability, a settled social group and a range of after-school activities.
The Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Surrey is the second largest state boarding school in the UK. It provides 53 free places for vulnerable children through its own educational charity. Referrals are made by primary school heads, vicars, parents and grandparents, and experience shows that vulnerable children may have a parent with mental health problems, terminal illness, or drug addiction. The school also has a handful of boarders funded by the local authority.
"Boarding school provides a structure for these children, as well as expectations about behaviour," says the school's head, Paul Spencer Ellis. "We talk to the child first, and they are perfectly able to weigh up the situation and make a decision about whether they want to board."
The school recently applied for £2.4m government funding to build 42 new en-suite study rooms. It received the funding two weeks ago and can now increase the number of free places to 65, which will go some way towards meeting demand.