The bright lights of modern boarding

Independent schools are seeing huge numbers of pupils board and with enough entertainment to make sure even the most truculent teenager is never bored, it’s easy to see why, writes Nicky Adams

According to the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA), 75,000 students in the UK now spend at least one night a week at school.

Certainly modern boarding is nothing like it used to be and anyone who takes a tour of the comfortable and tastefully decorated bedrooms, the common rooms complete with big-screen TVs, Xboxes and squishy sofas, and the Pret a Manger-influenced spaces for casual dining will see that in many cases today’s boarders are living a life of relative luxury; most likely on a par with being at home with their parents – though, they might say, with more entertainment and less nagging.

Although boarding numbers in general might have dipped very slightly from 2018 to 2019, according to the Independent Schools Council’s 2019 Annual Census, since the turn of the century boarding numbers have remained stable.

Full boarding remains the most popular, with weekly and flexi boarding rising in popularity over the last three years.

Second home

“My boarding house is a place where you get that loving and safe feeling, while still being at school,” says Cedar Balogun, a year 11 student at New Hall School who has been a boarder for the past five years.

Indeed, so attractive is boarding that at New Hall, in common with many of the 500 independent and state boarding schools up and down the country, even students whose homes are five minutes up the road choose to board rather than going home to their families every night.

“Our boarders really do view the boarding house as their second home,” says Julius Sidwell, vice-principal, boarding at New Hall, where 27% of senior school students are boarders. “But there is the added advantage of lots of activities and outings with friends from different year groups in a real family atmosphere.”

Our boarders really do view the boarding house as their second home

Gone are the huge, draughty dorms of yesteryear – most schools now provide comfortable rooms with six or eight beds for younger boarders (aged 8 to around 13) with threes, twos and even singles for older students, giving a taste of university student accommodation.

“Most rooms in our new Follyfield House have en suite facilities,” says Felsted School’s headmaster, Chris Townsend, about the girls’ boarding house that was recently purpose-built to replace one that was tragically destroyed by fire (fortunately the boarders themselves were at home for the summer holidays).

“Bright rooms with environmentally friendly lighting make it a pleasurable and efficient home, with social spaces, inside and out, and room for the whole house to gather or for year groups to socialise,” adds Townsend.

“We know how important it is to keep our boarding provision appropriate to modern expectations and every one of our nine houses is regularly reviewed, updated and refurbished.”

At Queen Ethelburga’s, where 1,100 of the 1,400 students board on a full or weekly basis, a newly refurbished boarding environment has just been opened, which has taken into account the wish lists of the boarders themselves, who requested – and got – cosy low-level lighting, en suite showers and an air-conditioning system with temperature controls in each room.

“When we first began planning the refurbishment, the students gave me consistent feedback – mainly ‘please make it homely’,” explains Amy Martin, Queen Ethelburga’s chief executive officer.

“So the old bunk beds have been taken out and single beds put in their place, there is more storage for clothing and belongings, and everyone has a noticeboard for pictures and posters, to make the space personal.”

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‘Snug’ rooms at Queen Ethelburga’s are provided for popular movie nights

Communal living

Learning to work, live and eat together is just one of the life lessons boarding has to offer. While study bedrooms have become smaller and more private, common and dining rooms are now the hub of the social side of boarding.

“Our new ‘snug’ rooms on each floor have smart TVs for the ever-popular movie nights, as well as gaming devices,” says Queen Ethelburga’s Amy Martin.

“Each house also has a generous common room with comfy sofas, a TV and an area with café-style booths, lit in an array of neon. There’s also a craft table, bursting with supplies for our creative students.”

While the boarders in most schools eat their meals in the school’s refectory or dining room, often with day pupils, at some it is the custom to eat in the house.

“Eighty per cent of students at Ampleforth College are full boarders and the house kitchens are the centre of boarding life,” says the school’s deputy head, pastoral and wellbeing, Jon Mutton. “Matrons are often found baking or making pizzas and each house has its own outdoor area for al fresco meals in the summer months.”

There’s often a small house kitchen area for students to throw together their own snacks as and when, always including the essential toaster (and smoke alarms to detect the inevitable burnt sliced white).

Ordering in a takeaway is now not usually forbidden and makes a great treat on special occasions, and older students are often encouraged to whip up a meal to practise their university cooking skills on their housemates.

Developing independence

In fact, making the most of the opportunity for students to develop the confidence to stand on their own two feet is perhaps the biggest selling point of modern boarding.

Queen Ethelburga’s is soon to introduce a new life skills programme for upper senior students who board, to support them in life ahead, and many schools gradually loosen the reins as students get older, allowing them to have more freedom at the weekends or to take themselves on outings to the cinema or bowling, for example, or to pursue their interests at school and to learn how to manage their free time.

“Modern boarding gives students more time to find the things they are passionate about,” says Cranleigh School’s deputy head pastoral, Dr Andrea Saxel.

“Our boarders really make the most of their school day – rather than being stuck in a car commuting to school, they are out on the pitches and in the studios rehearsing, or attending evening lectures from visiting speakers, or simply hanging out with friends in the boarding house.”

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Girls at Benenden spend a great deal of time in their houses so house staff get to know them and their families “extremely well”

Support network

While boarders begin to develop the skills they will need in the adult world, it’s still important to make sure there is a robustly supportive staff in place in the boarding house to guide them. After all, in the case of boarders, the school is ‘in loco parentis’ 24-hours a day.

“Rather than regarding boarding as separating students from their families, we prefer to see it as parents allowing us to share in their daughters’ formative years,” says Anne Wakefield, deputy head, boarding and pastoral care at Benenden School.

“In houses, pupils have a team of staff who offer them emotional, academic, social and practical support. Because the house acts as a second home and the girls spend a great deal of time in it, house staff try to get to know their charges and their families extremely well.”

At Ampleforth, the house team includes a chaplain – and often the family pet.

“Our housemasters and mistresses ensure that the house is an extension of their own family,” says Ampleforth’s Jon Mutton.

“A lot of our houseparents have young children and pets – mostly dogs – who play a full part in house life, adding to the homely feel.”

Fitting in with family

Indeed, working with families is the aim and boarding has great logistical benefits for parents who have busy jobs or who regularly work away from home. The introduction in recent decades of flexi boarding (one or a few nights a week) and weekly boarding has increased boarding’s uptake.

“Our weekly boarding bus service on a Sunday night and Saturday afternoon has really eased the transport burden, particularly for our London families,” says Felsted’s headmaster, Chris Townsend, of the school buses that whisk weekly boarders from their homes in the big smoke to school in the Essex countryside, saving parents time, and petrol.

Flexible boarding arrangements at Felsted are also much appreciated; 72% of senior students (aged 13 to 18) board on some basis and the school has pretty much the same number of weekly boarders as full boarders, while a third board just three nights a week.

“Many of our children have dual working parents,” says Townsend, “so our three-night contemporary boarding option in the senior school allows parents to work late, knowing that their children are well cared for, completing their homework with appropriate support and enjoying co-curricular activities with friends.

“Most of our pupils become weekly boarders in the upper sixth if not before, in preparation for university – for some teenagers, this is the perfect balance between time at home and time away.”

Many of our children have dual working parents so our three-night contemporary boarding option in the senior school allows parents to work late, knowing that their children are well cared for

Boarding at Cranleigh is only offered on a weekly basis, so the 70% of pupils aged 13 to 18 who board arrive on Sunday evening and stay in school until they’re collected by parents after matches on Saturday.

Typical of many prep schools, boarding at Cranleigh Prep is more flexible, with pupils aged seven to 13 encouraged to try boarding by staying for just one night a week, or five, which about a third of pupils do.

“A gentle start to boarding in this cosy environment can often be easier than boarding for the first time later on, when school life is busier and regimes less flexible,” says Cranleigh’s Dr Saxel.

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A third of boarders at Felsted School are on a ‘contemporary’ arrangement, staying three nights a week

Enhanced education

With rising fees, boarding is simply out of reach for many parents nowadays who perhaps used to be able to afford it.
However, independent schools are doing everything they can to make boarding worth the investment.

By providing comfortable, contemporary boarding facilities, run by approachable and supportive staff and with a programme of engaging social activities – all on a basis that works for today’s families – modern boarding can really add an extra dimension to school life and help develop the independence and skills boarders will appreciate well into adulthood.

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