Helena Pozniak
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Room to grow

The Telegraph
Boarding schools hone academic, social and sporting skills — no wonder their intake has risen

When headmistress Sally Anne Huang’s teenage son asked to go to a boarding school 10 minutes down the road, she could hardly refuse. “He wanted to board at Tonbridge School [in Kent] to play rugby, do his art and spend time with his friends,” says Huang, formerly housemistress at Roedean School, Brighton, and now head of the independent day and boarding school Kent College Pembury in Tunbridge Wells. “I would have been a hypocrite to refuse him, and sometimes it’s the parent who has to make the sacrifice.”

In the past, famously unhappy boarders, from Prince Charles to Rupert Everett, helped fuel an image of Britain’s schools as harsh, unfriendly places; and indeed, decades ago, many were. “I used to think boarding schools were somewhere you sent your seven-year-old if you didn’t love them,” says Huang.

Her first term as a teacher convinced her otherwise. Prefects no longer punish, shower blocks are deluxe affairs, the food is good and plentiful and parents are welcomed with open arms. “The boarding house is where the heart of the school lies,” she adds.

For the first time in years, the number of children going to boarding school in the UK has risen, according to the 2014 Independent Schools Council (ISC) report, and schools believe this is largely due to an increase in dual income families. While the overall number of boarders is up one per cent, the number of UK children boarding has risen by 4.6 per cent.

Of the 68,000 boarders in the UK, 29,600 are aged 16 and over while fewer than 150 seven-year-olds are boarders; it’s something teenagers grow into, believes Huang. With fees as high as £30,000 a year, full-time boarding is beyond the reach of many, so schools have introduced weekly and ad hoc flexible boarding, responding to parents’ qualms at the expense and the prospect of waving their children off for weeks — although this doesn’t really happen any more, points out Hilary Moriarty, former director of the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA), as parents usually live less than 90 minutes away from their children’s school and many pop in frequently.

With a husband in the navy and her own business to run, Ruth Sparkes, director of PR agency Empra, uses the flexible boarding facility at Rookwood School in Andover, Hampshire for her 14-year-old son, on the nights when she’s working late or obliged to travel.

“I was quite anxious about it at first – he started when he was eight. Neither my husband nor I went to private schools so it was all new to us, and I needed to be reassured he was well looked after. I didn’t want to be an imposition on other friends. And as an only child he’s missed out on sibling relationships, though he’s very confident now. The house mother was just the sort of woman you’d want to leave your child with – strict but good fun.” Sparkes’ heart sank when her son requested to board full time. “I’m not selfless enough to do that – I didn’t want to miss out important parts of him growing up.”

“I laughed every day,” says former boarder Saskia Leuchars, 22, who moved from the state system to board at an all girls’ school at 13, and later to board at a mixed sixth form. “I’d go and do it all again if I could,” she says. “It creates amazing friendships.” It wasn’t for everyone; it was strict and some pupils were homesick, she remembers, and smoking still went on in the bushes. “You become thicker skinned and better at dealing with being teased.”

With the benefit of hindsight, she appreciates the enforced structure of the day – with quiet times and study hours – that led her to keep up with substantial amounts homework. “One of the benefits of boarding were that teachers were around to ask for help if you got stuck with something and that made a real difference,” she says.

In fact boarding schools – which pay teachers slightly more than do day schools and offer perks such as accommodation – tend to attract high calibre staff, says Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, and can accelerate pupils’ academic progress.

At his school, which also turns out accomplished cricketers, exam results have improved seven years in a row, and applications to board have quadrupled in the last four years. The school now has 352 boarders as opposed to 117 in 2006 and this year 29 pupils won places at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Forty two out of his 113 staff are Oxbridge graduates – while this is no proof of teaching ability, he says, it’s an indication of the type of applicants such schools attract.

On any given night, the school will run some 20 clubs and a dozen or so clinics – one-to-one or small groups to help pupils struggling in any subject. “(Boarding) is a no-brainer if you want your child to make real progress,” says Cairns.

At his weekly meetings with housemasters, Ed Bond, housemaster at Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, focuses as much on the academic as he does the pastoral care. “Parents want their children to be happy but they also want them to succeed,” he says. Every week he sits down with his house team to reviewing individuals’ progress – a recent intervention saw him urging an academic high flier to listen to Radio 4 every morning so he’d perform better at university interview. Equally he’ll monitor pupils who are struggling in any subject.

Independent schools are renowned for developing a high proportion of the nation’s sports men and women and boarding schools have the edge over day schools, says Ian Pollock, director of sport at Repton School in Derbyshire, where prospective parents are often as interested in touring sports facilities as they are meeting the headmaster. Top performing athletes at the school will train morning and evening and the school runs between 10 and 15 teams in any one sport and hosts 11 pitches and a sports complex. ”I’ve worked in both day schools and boarding schools,” says Pollock. “Boarding makes a huge difference – you get so much more contact time – after school and at weekends.”

As a relatively small school with 660 pupils, Repton punches above its weight, with a former England hockey player Martin Jones on its staff; and four ex pupils, including silver medalist Georgie Twigg, played hockey at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

And around 100 pupils have recently signed up to a new elite athletics training programme within the school – the first of its kind in the UK, designed by Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson and run within the school by his organisation.

When England cricketer and former boarder Alistair Cook lays down his bat, Moriarty hopes he’ll return to coach in the independent sector that nurtured his talent. “Increasingly schools – even the academic or musically specialist schools such as Uppingham – are investing in ambitious sports facilities and they want the specialist teaches and coaches. Schools need sport to be good and will go to good places to get sporting excellence in their teams.”

Brochures for boarding school are peppered with references to “happy children”, and, says Huang, they really do what they say on the tin, give or take a few exceptions. “My chaplain says as parents, you’re only as happy as your least happy child, and there’s certainly no mileage in having miserable boarders.” Pastoral care, rarely mentioned in schools 30 years ago, has been utterly transformed and professionalised; the BSA recently ran a seminar in understanding homesickness and offers 59 day courses on boarding, and a university-accredited certificate in boarding education.

At Eton, even the cleaners are essential members of the team, says Head Master Tony Little, often feeding back essential information about pupils’ wellbeing.

“Gone are the days when house prefects “ran” things and the house master is hardly ever seen on the boys’ side,” says Gregg Davies, headmaster at Shiplake College in Oxfordshire. He’s just attended a wedding of one of his former pupils, now 36, and seen another referee at the Commonwealth Games. At best, he says, boarding nurtures independence, teamwork, leadership, tolerance and respect, and many students genuinely love it.

At Taunton School in Somerset, head Dr John Newton is a great believer in grubby knees and climbing trees. “We build children in a way parents with busy lives can’t,” he says. “Our education has the right degree of ruggedness.”

And when parents are more worried about how much time children might spend at home alone in front of screens, boarding school seems a reasonable – if costly – alternative. Learning to build relationships, get on with study, organise entertainment, mix with people from different cultures and backgrounds is no bad thing – interpersonal skills are the holy grail of most graduate recruiters. “These are skills that will serve them well in management some ten years down the line,” says Bond. He recently welcomed a former Haileybury pupil back to school to talk about his experiences serving with the armed forces in Afghanistan. Luke Mason received the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for courage under fire in Helmand province in 2012. “He found himself in an Afghan village and the most important skills he needed then – building relationships, learning how to relate to other people – were those he learned at boarding school.”

Boarding schools: then and now

Then: Children as young as seven are put on trains to spend whole terms away from home with only a mid-term exeat.

Now: Pupils enjoy flexi-boarding, unlimited parental visits, weekends at home, and parents are in frequent contact with boarding house staff.

Then: Pupils write and receive letters from parents, schools censor the miserable bits. Large queues form behind the only house phone.

Now: Pupils text, phone, and skype parents.

Then: The housemaster is a figure of fear, matrons are draconian.

Now: Housemasters – and all house staff – are professionally trained in pastoral care; every school has to provide an “independent listener” whom pupils can contact independently of school.

Then: Prefects possess power to discipline younger children – resulting in horrific incidents of bullying and abuse.

Now: Hierarchies have been broken down; prefects no longer have authority over younger pupils – they are encouraged to be listening ears and role models and are more likely to be found organising a game of capture the flag.

Then: Lumpy mattresses, large draughty dormitories, cold, distant communal showers.

Now: Refurbished comfy rooms for fewer pupils, shared en-suite bathrooms, common rooms with sofas and games consoles.

Then: Cavernous school gym halls with a few bars, mats and ropes.

Now: State-of-the-art sport complexes.

Then: Breakfast: porridge, lunch: meat stew, jam roly poly, supper: sausage and chips, bread and butter, no vegetarian option.

Now: Breakfast: Croissants, cereal, kippers and bacon, lunch: BBQ spare ribs with wedges and sour cream, banoffee cheesecake; supper roasts, vegetarian options and a salad bar.

Then: Pupils mainly from British well-to-do and expat families.

Now: Around 33 per cent of boarders are non-British pupils with parents living overseas. Pupils at independent schools are becoming more diverse with 28 per cent of children from ethnic minorities. Twenty one per cent of Etonians are on bursaries of 60 per cent or more, 63 pupils pay nothing.

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