Pack'em off to boarding school - and let the Government pay

Believe it or not, there are dozens of state boarding schools – and they're quite good.
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We are programmed to think of boarding school as the privilege of the wealthy, something that "other" families do. Well, the nation's best-kept secret is about to be unleashed, and it will shatter all the Dickensian illusions about what boarding school means.

"My phone keeps ringing with people saying, 'I've heard there's such a thing as a state boarding school'," says Hilary Moriarty, the national director of the UK Boarding Schools Association (BSA). The BSA represents 500 schools, 35 of which are non-fee-paying – in other words, state schools where boarders pay nothing for their education, only their residential fees.

"You're effectively getting a public school education for half price," says Moriarty. And there's little of the public school about it. "These youngsters are not going home to go hunting at the weekend. These are the children of parents who are simply saying, 'It's £6,000-£8,000, we can manage it – we just won't have an expensive foreign holiday'."

The concept of children being "sent away" to boarding school is also changing. Around 80 per cent of parents live within one hour of their child's boarding school, and many pupils board on a weekly basis. Further up the school, however, as they become engaged in social and sporting activities, many often can't bear to miss out, and go full-time.

Despite the relatively small number of state boarding schools in the country, the collection is surprisingly diverse, and offers something for everybody. If you want a country environment with a rigorous extra-curricular programme, what about high-performing Sexey's, in rural Somerset, which has 300 boarders out of a total of 535 students? Or if your child is shy and might shrink in a larger boarding setting, how about Ashby School in Leicestershire, where 50 boys board together in one house and go round the corner each morning to the comprehensive with 1,500 pupils? Perhaps your child is less academic – how about Brymore, which will be familiar to fans of The Archers? This Somerset school specialises in rural technology and has 150 boarders out of 200 students.

Unsurprisingly, more boarding-school parents live in the South-east and down the M4 corridor than anywhere else in Britain. Although numbers in the independent sector are on a downward slide in general, boarding is increasingly being seen as a good option for London parents. Alongside the question of what to do with children when parents have busy, professional careers, safety is also an issue, says Moriarty.

"You only need a few crime stories in the news to make parents think that their children could be in the wrong place at the wrong time," she says. "If you know they can be in the haven of a boarding school and not get shot or knifed, that's a huge relief for parents, because in London, who can be sure?"

And the state boarding schools are rising up the league tables. Hockerill Anglo-European College, in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, has led the A-level results tables for two years running on the strength of its rigorous IB programme. Dr Robert Guthrie – "Dr Bob" to his pupils – is principal of the school, which over the last five years has seen applications rise from around two per place to the current six. A third of the latest year-seven cohort is from London.

"I think that even for people who are in the better areas of London, it's a very urban, built-up environment," Dr Guthrie says. "The quality of life is not as good as you would get at a country boarding school, and you don't very easily have all the time and space to engage in all those activities that happen beyond the classroom."

Hockerill has 70 clubs and activities and what Dr Guthrie calls a "nice, parkland environment with lots of space". Caroline Nelson, a teacher from Willesden Green in north-west London, has a son in year 11 at Hockerill. "Having taught in the inner-city forever, I'm quite tainted," she says. "I know a lot of people whose children are boarding. I feel safe that he's there."