Boarding no longer means three-month breaks without contact from home. There are many options for families now within a modern-thinking boarding school landscape, explains Georgina Blaskey.
Picture the scene: it’s 6.30am in winter and your child’s alarm goes off. You tiptoe around the house making breakfast without waking everyone else and, after a last minute panic that they have their kit, books and season ticket to hand, you send them off laden down to get a bus to the train station, along with a world of commuters busily traveling through the capital. It’s a scenario many families are questioning. For parents who would never have considered boarding school – due to financial or cultural reasons – there’s a new, more ﬂexible option that is creating a trend now growing in strength and numbers.
Weekly and/or ﬂexi-boarding is a wonderful halfway house; children get the experience of boarding without the full commitment. Moreover, many boarding schools just outside London provide the weekly pick-ups and drop-offs in areas of demand such as Balham, Clapham and Wimbledon.
Judith Brown, Deputy Head (Pastoral) at Woldingham, a girls’ secondary school in Surrey, reveals: “Half our pupils are weekly boarders and so many of our girls come from London – they can be ﬂexi, weekly or day pupils. Throughout our history, we’ve always responded to our market. We had increased interest from London families and, as we have the existing wraparound care, it
made sense to fill the beds and give greater opportunity to our day girls. It helps them get used to boarding and we are as ﬂexible as we can be.
THE CHANGING FACE OF BOARDING
Full boarding used to be everywhere; half term weekends (not weeks!) and ‘exeats’ were so rare, parent-teacher meetings so non-existent, that it simply did not concern parents if a
school was at the other end of the country.
Today, occasional ‘ﬂexi’ and weekly boarding for as little as four nights are the norm. Few schools compel children to stay at weekends and Saturday morning lessons are on the wane. Most parents want boarding schools nearby, so they can drop in for events, meetings or just to catch up with their children. Boarding is now a collaboration between parents and school and it starts later too: only a few hundred seven to nine year olds board; all positive changes.
Meanwhile, Asian and African families still ﬂy their children to British boarding schools. Some schools only have overseas boarders, but this trend may be dying rapidly with the explosion of British overseas schools. Many may lose their boarding altogether and with it, the wonderful experience of sharing an education with children from a global diaspora.
Source: Independent Schools Show
Woldingham’s approach to ﬂexi-boarding has been incredibly successful. What started in Years 7 and 8 has been rolled out to other age groups higher up the school. “Girls can choose to stay one or two nights a week – they sign up a term in advance and a term at a time. Where we can, each girl will have the same bed each night they stay, in a room with other boarders so they are fully integrated, and we provide the bed linen! With activities throughout the week, it gives them the chance to relax if they need to stay late at school. Wednesday is our most popular night, as that’s the main extracurricular club night.”
Strengthening the relationship between day pupils and boarding pupils is a wonderful by-product of the ﬂexi approach. Rowena Cole, Head of St John’s School, Leatherhead, says: “The majority of our pupils are day pupils but a thriving boarding community sits at the heart of St John’s and all of our pupils belong to houses which create a base and sense of belonging within the school campus.” St John’s believes parents see it as a ‘best of both worlds’ balance between school and family life.
Weekly or ﬂexi-boarding has many benefts, including encouraging maturity and independence, supporting academic excellence and simply removing the stress of a daily commute. The key is to find the right ft for your family. For many parents, juggling the demands of work and family life is a daily challenge, so choosing to give their children the option to stay at school, avoid commuting and enjoy the extra time they have to be with friends, spend time with a teacher for extra help or join in on more sport and drama, provides the perfect balance, and it’s a price worth paying.
James Johnson, Deputy Head at Ardingly College, a co-ed secondary school in Sussex, explains: “In Years 9 to 11 we offer full boarding and ﬂexi-boarding. Flexi-boarding is a minimum of three nights a week as that both suits the lifestyle of busy parents and also enables our Housemasters and Housemistresses to create a genuine boarding ethos. We have seen more and more families from London coming to the school. The bus we run from Clapham every Monday and Friday helps with this. We have an even split in the school between boarders and day pupils, with some 280
The popularity of ﬂexi-boarding options has not gone unnoticed by many full boarding schools, many of which now offer weekly boarding and buses on a Sunday night from London. One such co-ed is secondary school Cranleigh, in Surrey, and Housemistress Beth Rhodes comments:
“Our model is a full boarding school with the majority of our students as weekly boarders living within an hour and a half of school. They do sport on Saturday and go back after their match with their parents who, for the most part, have come to watch. It’s a great point of contact for us with families so they feel fully part of the school.”
BOARDING: THE DECISION
Moving to boarding is a big decision for a family and may be a significant change from prep school life. Ensure that you have visited as a family and talk about the decision together. Schools will welcome visits and as many questions as you may have.
Choose a school with a warm, friendly community and a strong pastoral care system, and a boarding environment that is right for your family. Schools will offer ﬂexi, full or weekly boarding where the child spends the weekend after activities at home. Many busy families really appreciate this model as the children get the best of both worlds. Thanks to the extra time in the day, modern boarding offers a wealth of opportunity for children to try new experiences and discover what they are passionate about; it can also bring academic advantages.
Clearly, the parents’ decision to allow a son or daughter to board can only really be justified by the fulfillment of their lives at school.
Parents love that time with their child, from Saturday evening until Sunday night. They appreciate knowing their child is safe and nurtured, that they have time and space to enjoy their sport, their studies and their friends, and then they catch up with them at the weekend.
Despite the new ﬂexibility, established routines are still firmly in place, although contact with home is encouraged rather than withheld. At Cranleigh, for example, bedtimes are still enforced. In the first year students do not have a mobile phone and all iPads, which each child has for school work, are kept in the classrooms. “It’s really effective for their relationships,” says Rhodes.
As a former boarder myself, I recall one of the highlights being the contact with all age groups and the rich friendships that developed between all the years. It’s encouraging in this age of social media to hear this is still a wonderful by-product of life in a boarding house.
With an increased sense of community, the freedom to stay as little or as much as they wish, and the ability to become more involved in school activities for all pupils, boarding has reinvented itself for the modern world, with families at the centre. Could it be that contemporary boarding even enhances family life?
CRIB SHEET FOR NEW BOARDERS
Aegrotat – illness or sickness, often shortened to aeger and is used mainly by classics students showing off their Latin. “Barty skipped rugger last night, a touch of the aeger.”
Beak – teacher.
Crammer – an educational institution which organizes intense series of stand-alone revision sessions, usually in the holidays before exams. Almost exclusively paid-for, these are often used by pupils hoping to “bump” a grade eg “I was forecast a B in English so my parents sent me to a crammer and I somehow squeaked an A”.
Dormy raid – attack by one dormitory upon another. Usually performed under cover of darkness and when the stakes are high, eg after a pizza delivery or visit to the tuck shop.
Exeat – a leave of absence from school. It’s generally used to describe weekend leave from a boarding school.
Formal hall – the whole school eating together.
Soup strainer – moustache.
Mufti – the wearing of ordinary clothes, ie not school uniform.
New bug – new boy or girl.
Prep – another word for homework in the private sector.
Tardy – late, used recently by Prince William to describe the overdue birth of Prince George. “I’ll remind him of his tardiness when he’s older.”
Trunk – errrr actually just a trunk! But it’s the most common method used to transport belongings to and from a boarding school.
Tuck box – a robust, lockable box essential for boarding school life.