Capital exodus: Why London families are sending their children to boarding school

The day that her eight-year-old son started boarding is vivid in Alexandra Lloyd's memory. Her husband took the day off work and the family watched the funniest film they could find. Tom changed in to his school uniform in front of the television and they piled into the car with his luggage.

"I was determined to stay jolly," says Lloyd. I kept telling myself: 'Tom is going to be fine. I am going to be fine' and I was – until we got there and a housemistress touched me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't worry. It is going to be OK'. "

At that point, Lloyd burst into tears and had to be ushered in to another room. She was one of three mothers wearing dark glasses for the headmaster's reception that day.

Alexandra and her husband Charles are one of an increasing number of London couples opting for boarding. Long working hours, the cost of after-school child care, and fear of their children wandering around London on public transport are contributing to the trend.

For the Lloyd family, the move was prompted by the limited choice of day schools in London. Tom had been happy at Wetherby School, the pre-prep for four to eight-year-olds close to home, but his parents wanted to avoid the emphasis on competitive exams to more sought-after secondary schools that characterises the London scene.

Tom had the academic ability to succeed but his parents were reluctant to embark on the intensive coaching needed to ensure a place. They were looking for a more relaxed atmosphere and more open space.

What better place than The Dragon, the co-educational boarding school in Oxford for children aged eight to 13 that has two-fifths of children coming from London and others from homes less than a mile away? Parents visiting for the first time comment on the green fields and trees, according to John Baugh, the headmaster. "They want their children to have freedom to run around, which many London prep schools can't provide."

Mrs Lloyd was a boarder herself, at Wycombe Abbey, the girl's school in High Wycombe, but was not planning on a boarding education for her four children. But she was bowled over by the facilities at The Dragon and thought it the right school for Tom.

Tom settled in. Although he carried letters from his mother around with him, he showed no sign of serious homesickness. Asked after a term if he would rather be back in London at school, he rolled his eyes and said "Mum, have you gone mad?" In fact, he was having such a good time that his sisters were jealous and begged to be allowed to join him, leaving Bute House, the feeder school for St Paul's Girls' for The Dragon last September. "Bute House is a wonderful school but they thought they would have more fun at The Dragon," says Mrs Lloyd.

There is a drift from London day schools down the M4 corridor, according to Hilary Moriarty, the national director of the Boarding Schools' Association. Easy transport links mean parents can be at the schools in one to two hours for concerts or matches, no longer than the time it can take to negotiate traffic in the capital. Children develop at different rates and if parents find their child doesn't fit the straightforward academic mould, boarding at schools with a wider intake but a good academic record can be the solution, she says.

Good road and rail links have boosted weekly boarding at schools such as Badminton in Bristol and Heathfield St Mary's, the girls' boarding school in Ascot where two-fifths of pupils are from London. Jan Scarrow, Badminton's headmistress, says families often choose boarding because both parents work long hours.

"The girls have teachers around in the evening to help with homework instead of au pairs," she says. "Some of the au pairs are lovely but they haven't got the English. That's why they are here. And they haven't the experience of our education system. Parents tell us that boarding has enhanced their family life because they can devote themselves to the children at weekends and are close enough to get down to the school to attend events such as concerts or sports fixtures."

It's also a solution for single parents working full time. Linda Moore, a journalist in London, says she sees Sky, her daughter, aged 11, for just an hour or so before bedtime. "I've been using nannies and au pairs but Sky is getting to an age when she won't want to be looked after by an au pair and I don't want her hanging about on street corners," she says.

"I worry about the dead time after school when she could be doing so much more and Sky herself suggested boarding, perhaps because of the influence of Tracy Beaker and Malory Towers."

Her daughter is hoping for a place in September at the Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire. This is one of the 35 state boarding schools where tuition is free and parents pay for the boarding element, currently £7,872 a year for weekly boarding, around one-third of independent school fees.

It was the lack of outdoor space for sport at London prep schools that led Simon Hungin's parents to consider boarding. "He had a lot of energy that was not being expended being ferried to a park for an hour a few times a week," says Liz Hungin, his mother. The decision was clinched by Simon himself when he spotted the playing fields and sports facilities at Caldicott in Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire. "The second reason was that his previous school told us that competition was so intense for the big London day schools that we should consider boarding, despite the fact that our son is intelligent and able. The pressure was ferocious. A lot of his contemporaries were being tutored for many hours a day after school to gain places at the 'important' schools and we didn't want that for our son."

Neither Hungin nor her husband went to boarding school and had not considered it for their children. But Caldicott has been a revelation to them. "We have a far more relaxed son who is great company," says his mother. "And the icing on the cake has been the offer of a provisional place at Harrow."

At home with her youngest, Jasper, aged four, Mrs Lloyd, a teacher who works part-time, says she sometimes feels bereft without her three eldest but the family visit the children nearly every weekend and are reassured by the fact that they are so happy at The Dragon.

The drawback has been insults from other parents who believe it is wrong to send children away from home – and tell her so. But she believes that choosing the boarding option can be the most unselfish thing you can do for your child.

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