A two-minute walk from the main campus of Truro School in Cornwall, a small gaggle of boarding students have been sitting out the pandemic in the school’s Malvern boarding house, which was opened in 1946. Over the years the house has been improved by degrees, but in November last year it underwent a substantial refurbishment, bringing it bang up to date for 21st-century boarding.
“Around 15 of our 80 boarders decided to stay at school, even while it was part-closed for day students,” explains Truro’s head of girls’ boarding, Sarah Mulready, “and the girls are really enjoying this updated environment. They’ve made the best of a peculiar situation by staying positive and buoying each other up, and they’ve had lots of cooking sessions, Saturday-night snacks feasts and board game sessions.”
To encourage the feeling of togetherness, the refit of Malvern House has focused on community, with a flowing open-plan living area and a new table that seats 20 at once.
A generous American-style fridge-freezer has plenty of space for shared snacks and a coffee machine makes having a chat over a cuppa even more appealing than ever for the 20 girls whose home this is in term-time. The walls are painted a fashionable grey and decorated with colourful student-made accessories and artwork.
Over in East Anglia, Woodbridge School’s 125-year-old School House has been made more congenial too. A traditional red-brick house right in the middle of the school campus, it is known for its quirky layout, but while School House’s 40 boarders were not in school last summer, a new modern, light and ergonomic kitchen was installed to accommodate a dozen boarders cooking and eating together.
“At Woodbridge we have just one traditional, co-educational boarding house, which provides a truly family experience for our year 9 to 13 boarding students, who are mostly international and represent 15 different countries,” explains Richard Pineo, housemaster and head of boarding at Woodbridge School.
“School House is an extended home for them. Seventeen stayed with us during the spring term part-closure and the atmosphere was great. They particularly enjoyed the large new kitchen area, which became a hub of activity. Being in the house has retained a sense of normality for them.”
Work is ongoing at Woodbridge, with plans now going ahead for the creation of two new outdoor spaces for boarders, one with benches and a vegetable plot and the other a quad with a barbecue, bench and gazebo for the warmer months. A volleyball court will be in place ready for the summer.
The challenge of turning historic buildings into those fit for modern boarders is one the leadership team at Bredon School in Gloucestershire know well. Boys’ boarding at Bredon is spread over three floors in Pull Court, the Grade II*-listed Cotswold Stone manor house that is the heart of the school and dates from the 17th century, though it underwent some remodelling in the early 19th. Meanwhile, girls are lodged in Stable House, which has its own garden right in the middle of the school’s grounds.
“We did take advantage of the time our 100 boarders weren’t with us during the first period of closure last year to refurbish both boarding houses,” says Tom Butt, Bredon’s deputy head (pastoral and boarding).
Indeed, the entire top floor of Pull Court’s accommodation for 22 sixth form boys was refloored, refurnished and repainted to create a more modern space in which to work and socialise. Communal areas and bedrooms were decorated in a homely and inviting style. Stable House, with its two common rooms and individual bedrooms for 28 girls, was modernised throughout.
“Boarding staff, who may otherwise have been furloughed at the time, were enthused by the chance to make a real difference to the living spaces,” says Butt, “and the boarders returned to school excited and proud of the improvements. Parents’ reactions have been very positive too – they have generously added to the decor in both houses with gifts of pictures, bird tables and flower deliveries.”
Sedbergh School in Cumbria is one of the UK’s few remaining full-boarding schools and, with record numbers of girls joining in 2020, the decision was taken to bring forward the planned development of a new boarding house to accommodate them.
“We are experiencing an increased level of interest from overseas and UK families who are seeking a traditional ‘full’ boarding experience,” says David Milner, Sedbergh’s director of marketing and international relations. “Our rural location has certainly become even more attractive due to Covid-19 as parents seek safer and less densely populated areas for their children to live and study.”
With six boys’ boarding houses and only three for girls, before the pandemic ambitious plans were made to relocate the school’s sixth form centre to the main site and convert the vacated building into a new boarding facility to increase the capacity for sixth form girls.
This work was accelerated over the summer of 2020 in readiness for the return of students in the new academic year; instead, in September the school elected to open it as Nightingale House – a place staffed by an experienced assistant houseparent and medical team for pupils who needed to isolate as a result of contracting Covid-19.
“The intention is for the house to open to 11 boarders in September 2021,” says Milner. “It has a contemporary modern finish and there’s a single bedroom for each boarder, to provide the girls with a sense of independent living to prepare them for university. They share a common room, plus kitchen, dining and bathroom facilities, and there is self-contained accommodation for staff.”
Also scheduled to open in September 2021 is a newly constructed 35-room residence for students at Abbey College Manchester. Located in the city’s Northern Quarter, Clydesdale House will be a 10-minute walk from the independent college for 15- to 19-year-olds who study for A-levels, GCSEs, Combined Studies and International Foundation Programmes.
All the rooms in the purpose-built accommodation will be single and arranged in ‘clusters’ for boys and girls on the top two floors, with access restricted to students and staff members.
Abbey College Manchester’s boarders will be catered for on a full-board basis and will share a seating area, television and table for socialising and studying. They will also have access to free washing machines, cycle storage and communal spaces in the building, and will be protected by 24-hour on-site security, a door entry system and CCTV cameras. A houseparent and an on-site maintenance team will be on hand at all times.
“We aim to provide our boarding students with facilities and care of the highest standard, enabling them to thrive in their academic studies and in the wider life of the college, while ensuring they are well equipped to meet future challenges,” says Abbey College Manchester’s principal, Liz Elam.
“All boarders should be enabled to develop spiritually, culturally, morally and socially during their time at the college.”
Studying and living in one of the UK’s most vibrant cities is certainly part of the draw for the 220 students at Abbey College Manchester, who are a mix of local and international students.
‘Robust’ boarding sector
Indeed, the number of boarders coming to the UK is not expected to wane as a result of either the pandemic or Brexit, but to continue the upward trajectory of the past few years.
In 2012 the number of boarders in UK schools from overseas first overtook those whose families were UK-based and the gap has continued to widen. In 2020, there were over 37,500 international boarders, compared to 32,000 from the UK. It seems likely that the offer of a safe community, often in a rural setting, will continue to be appealing to families based in the UK and beyond.
“UK boarding schools have a long and proud tradition of welcoming students from all over the world and remain an attractive proposition for them,” says Robin Fletcher, chief executive officer of the Boarding Schools’ Association.
“Enquiries from students wanting to come and study in UK boarding schools continue to be healthy and we are confident the sector remains robust. However, these are challenging times for everyone, and we must continue to adapt to suit the needs of pupils and of communities.”
Post-pandemic it looks as if the diggers and decorators will continue to be busy, as boarding facilities are developed as modern residences for a growing number of students from the UK and overseas who are keen to call their school their second home.
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