Knowing I was to write a feature on boarding, I recently subjected my elder son to a viewing of Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 film If, a limited but not entirely unfaithful depiction of public school life in the 1960s and based upon the writer’s own time at my son’s school, Tonbridge. Aware I had boarded at a school not unlike Tonbridge, he was aghast. “You mean,” he asked incredulously, “you actually lived like that?”
Indeed we did. It may have been the Swinging Sixties but within the bounds of our little academic time capsule it was the fearsome Forties. Nothing really had changed since the war and many masters – and not a few boys – were delighted it hadn’t. The ‘happiness’ of the pupils was not for a moment a consideration. It had been founded in the late Mesozoic for the education of the sons of “…noblemen and gentlemen”. That we somehow manage to achieve either status, was all that really mattered.
Thankfully, both schools have changed beyond recognition. My own is now co-ed and universally loved by both pupils and parents and Tonbridge, while remaining all-boys, has become one of the top academic performers in the country and a thoroughly civilised and enjoyable place to spend five formative years. All that my son recognised in the film was the inane schoolboy banter.
Once a dinosaur probably destined for oblivion, the British boarding school has re-invented itself, providing an outstanding preparation for whatever world into which pupils choose to step when they leave. It’s true that they may well be socially divisive but this is a consideration beyond both the scope of this article and the concern of most parents when choosing a school for their children.
Parents merely want their children to be happy and to be best prepared for the world in which they are going to live. For some children this may be a boarding school, for others it may not. Some children are natural boarders, others will tend to struggle for a little while until they find their niche and others will decide that it’s simply not for them. As usual, the buck stops with the parents. They are the ones who know their child. And as important as making the basic decision of to board or not to board is, if so, where? Schools are very different. Parents need to visit schools and, if at all possible, talk to parents with children already there.
Boarding today comes in all shapes and flavours and for all ages. Gone, of course, are the days when parents would routinely pack off their children at seven, effectively handing over their education, wellbeing and personal development to a series of institutions until they were young adults. Today it is relatively rare to find a parent willing to part with their children at that age, unless there are extenuating circumstances, nor an educationalist or psychologist who thinks it wise.
What has become popular at many prep schools – particularly due to the influence of one J.K. Rowling – is flexi-boarding where children can spend one or more nights at school each week, either with the idea of getting them used to boarding before their senior schools, giving them a little taste of independence or simply for the sheer fun of it. In effect, what this turns out to be is a big sleepover with one’s mates often with entertainment organised by staff.
One of Kent’s best known prep schools, Saint Ronan’s in Hawkhurst – co-incidentally housed in a seriously Hogwarty Victorian gothic pile – was once a boys-only, boarding-only prep school but is now a thriving and very popular co-ed day school offering flexi-boarding. Its resident Chief Wizard, who also doubles as Headmaster, is a former Stowe housemaster William Trelawny-Vernon who, although not a fan of full time boarding for younger children, certainly favours flexi-boarding.
“As a former public school boarding housemaster, I can assure you children don’t have to do full boarding in preparation,” he says. “Flexi is the best introduction. Having been sent off to full boarding school at 8yrs old, I could never have countenanced full boarding at prep school for my own children. I struggle to see how there is any added value in using this option so young.
“The new model of flexi-boarding simply works brilliantly. There is no compulsion to board and so homesickness is virtually unknown, the separate boarding staff are enthused and fresh through not being on duty all week, children can be with their friends and parents are not too far – but far enough away for the children to have an exciting time,” he says.
Another successful and popular prep school offering flexi-boarding is Cranbrook’s Dulwich Prep, where Head of Boarding is Kate Montgomery. “Flexi-boarding at Dulwich is up-beat, fun and caters for 21st century children. It’s a very popular option with parents and children and a great extension to the normal school day,” she says.
“Children can join in a whole range of activities or simply do their own thing with their own friends. Whereas if they were at home they might be alone with their iPads or phones, here they aren’t taken away from them but the children are offered so much more to do in the way of sports and activities they tend to spend little time with their screens. There are party nights and themed nights and there is always something to join in with,” she says. “However, these activities are, of course, all totally optional and the children can participate or not as they please.”
Interestingly, Kate says parents report that flexi-boarding also seems to have home benefits, with children becoming more organised and taking on more responsibility. “So, we are not looking solely at preparing them in an enjoyable way for boarding at a senior school but helping them take the next important step in their social and self-development.”
And in the same way that prep schools have changed, so the style and dynamics of senior school boarding are very different to those of a generation ago with many of even the oldest schools turning co-ed, offering parents an attractive alternative to single sex establishments.
Others, like Tonbridge, have gone for weekly boarding that has the dual advantage of softening the parting between parent and child and of involving parents more with their children’s school lives. The weekly pick-up offers parents regular contact not only with their child’s housemaster and matron but the child’s friends and their families.
However, there is always the hugely thorny question of affordability. The cost of boarding at a senior school is typically three times that of a prep school. One of the throwaway lines in the film If was that fees at Tonbridge in the 60s were £642 per annum. Today they are 55 times higher. However, virtually all boarding schools have scholarship and bursary schemes with Tonbridge particularly generous, setting aside £2.5m a year for this purpose and offering fee remissions of between 10 and 100 per cent. If they did not, trust me, I would not be writing this from any personal experience of the excellent quality of education that establishment can now provide.
My son emerged with not only the bits of paper that allowed him to go on to fulfil his ambition of med school but something less tangible but arguably as important, a true education – the importance of which I leave to Albert Einstein.
“Education,” said Albert, “is what remains after one has forgotten everything one learned in school.”
- words: John Graham Hart
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