Boarders' open day puts school to the test: Rhys Williams joins would-be pupils as Cheltenham College offers a 24-hour trial to show that boarding can be fun

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The Independent Online
JONATHAN STUBBS'S first taste of boarding school ended with a bump. As the 11-year-old cruised to the end of an otherwise immaculately controlled run around the karting track, he panicked, missed the brake, hit the throttle and mounted a kerb before smashing the kart.

In the sanatorium, that great public school institution Matron - by whom every pupil must eventually be squeezed - nursed the boy's cut lip and grazed arm.

To sighs of disappointment, the karting option was removed from Cheltenham College's '24 Hours', which sounds more like an endurance race than an activity day for schoolboys. That left only shooting, subaqua, rowing, cricket, super science, pottery, tennis, information technology, drama and music to choose from.

Term at Cheltenham ended on Friday, and the 83 boys, aged between 9 and 12, running round grounds yesterday were potential pupils, brought by their parents to get their first view of boarding at a senior school - a kind of virtual reality prospectus.

Daniel Jenkins, 11, from Chepstow, was smiling. Small matter that this was to be his first night away from home at a boarding school - his team were 9-3 up in a game of six-a-side football. 'Brilliant' was Daniel's verdict of the game and the school.

Football, not actually played at Cheltenham, was the hastily arranged replacement for Jonathan's karting group - much to the disgust of Benjamin Jones, 11, from Balsall Common, near Coventry. 'I don't like football, I play rugby, loose-head prop normally.' Benjamin has been boarding since he was six and loves it.

'I came to see the facilities - the dorms and the masters,' he said. And his impressions? 'Good, apart from the football.'

Peter Wilkes, the school's headmaster, said the aim of the day was to give parents 'the chance to test their children's reaction to the idea of being a boarder'.

'Quite a lot still have not made up their minds about sending their sons away. And far more than in my day, they are listening to the wishes of their boys.'

But surely all fun and games, and no prep or nasty bells waking them up at unearthly hours offers the boys a pretty privileged perspective?

'It's obviously a very selective view, but we're trying to redress some of the negative perceptions of boarding. For example, that dorms are not echoey, inhospitable barns, but quite intimate places where they feel they can be happy and have fun.'

Cheltenham College's slick pitch to parents and children comes against a background of national decline in the numbers of pupils boarding.

After a decade of steady falls, last year saw a record 6 per cent drop.

Recession, Mr Wilkes believed, had been a factor - annual boarding fees for Cheltenham cost the best part of pounds 12,000. But there had also been sociological changes, with parents increasingly uneasy about packing off a child to school and apparently cutting them from the family unit.

Mr Wilkes said: 'Mothers are playing a greater part in deciding on their children's education and they are much more nervous about surrendering their care to a school.' But there were no Sunday evening blues for yesterday's boys - tomorrow promised more sub-aqua, more shooting, more rowing, and at the end of it all Mum and Dad would be back.

(Photograph omitted)