It might not be the Harry Potter effect, so much as the Hermione effect. Harry's brainy friend loves boarding school – and so, it seems, do increasing numbers of girls across the South-east. A combination of factors, from crammed London schools to clogged roads, plus a creeping change in what boarding schools are prepared to offer, is pushing up demand for places in a range of schools around the area.
A sector that was in decline has seen a boost in pupil numbers, with students turned away in places, and parents who would not have previously considered boarding as an option changing their minds. The big change has been in the numbers of girls boarding, with weekly boarders up by nearly 6 per cent in the South-east alone, according to the Independent Schools Council Information Service.
Headmistress Jenny Dwyer runs Prior's Field, a 308-strong girls boarding school in Godalming, Surrey. The beginning of term sees her ruefully admitting that had she started a building extension this year instead of next, she could have filled the new rooms immediately. "I could have filled 10 more beds this week alone," she says. Last year London boarders took 22 places at the school. This year they will take 30.
At Lord Wandsworth College near Hook, Hampshire, the story is much the same. "Day schools in London are full up and people are keen to have their children in better surroundings. We have 1,200 acres of countryside here, the children are really safe and they have fresh air. Parents appreciate what we can offer, especially when both are working, and the children love it. They choose to board," says the school's Director of Development, Mary Hicks.
The school has 509 pupils, boys and girls, with weekly, day and full boarding as options. And day pupils are choosing to board occasionally – opting to stay one to four nights a week. Bed space is at a premium and girls are having to opt to be boarders to guarantee themselves a bed for the night.
Day schooling in London, with long journeys and concern about safety, is taking its toll on parents and children alike. "We have had an increase in the numbers of both boys and girls and I cannot accommodate another boarder at the moment," says Christopher Tongue, head of St John's, Leatherhead, a boy's school with a co-ed sixth. "It's the attractiveness of the lifestyle. Day pupils have to travel to school and home in the evening and then face more work. After that they will want to turn on the TV instead of talking to parents, and stresses emerge with parents feeling they're nagging." Georgina, a pupil at Woldingham School near Caterham, agrees. She says she now values the time she has with her family at weekends. "When I got back from school last year I would just watch television," she says. "I used to have arguments with my mum and now I never do. Weekends are a really special time."
Fun, evening activities, being with friends, and not having to get up so early in the morning are all cited by pupils as reasons for boarding, as well as the opportunity for independence. At several schools with day and boarding regimes, staff say pupils often want to board in the sixth form. They do their own laundry and other tasks in preparation for student life.
Schools also know they have to offer what pupils want – and that is, increasingly, flexi-boarding. Day pupils, as at Lord Wandsworth College, find that it's useful to stay over for one or more nights a week. And full-time boarders like to go home for weekends, so a number of schools offer buses to take pupils to London and back. They have also to dispel some persistent beliefs about boarding school life. "It's not supposed to be a cold-shower regime any more," says Jenny Dwyer. "It's about home comforts now." When Prior's Field completes its extension this year it will contain 20 sixth form en-suite study bedrooms.
And comparisons with Harry Potter and Hermione? Charlotte, at Woldingham, admits that the books had "quite a bit" to do with her decision to board, and she's not regretted it. "You do have adventures which I don't think you have in day schools."
They don't yet have lessons in defences against the dark arts at Woldingham. But as Daisy, aged 12, says, the scenery at least competes with Hogwarts – "even if they don't have four-poster beds".
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