Britain has produced some of the world’s greatest minds in the sciences, literature, politics and the arts. Thinkers and leaders have secured the tiny island’s place as a big player on the world stage; the deeds of men and women have been respected the world over.
Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and MI6 heroine Elizabeth Devereux-Rochester are all products of the same Great British institution: boarding school.For a long time boarding schools were seen as elitist, stuffy and out of touch. Prince Charles has spoken about dreary years spent at the stuffy yet decrepit Gordonstoun in the Scottish Highlands, describing it as “Colditz in kilts”.
Lately the boarding school tradition has had a makeover, partly thanks to Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts, and partly due to a new, cool generation of ex-boarders. Benedict Cumberbatch, Emma Watson and Eddie Redmayne are leading lights in the alumni of British boarding schools.
This mixture of centuries old tradition and modern cool has seen applications for places at boarding schools peak in the last few years. And it’s not just Brits looking to get their kids into the hallowed halls of Harrow, Eton or Cheltenham Ladies’ college.
An increasing number of Chinese and Middle Eastern scholars are heading to school in the UK, seeking to make the most of a world-renowned education system. The fact that pupils stay at school during the school term means that parents can live overseas and know their children are in good hands.
There’s an expectation that the expense of boarding school guarantees a higher quality of education. While its true that expensive schools tend to offer smaller class sizes and better facilities than state schools, it doesn’t automatically create A* students. Prince Harry had some of the finest education money can buy, but his GCSE results were so bad they are now a state secret.
A place at British boarding school might seem like an elegant solution to guaranteeing your children a good, consistent education while you work abroad, but there is a lot to consider.
10. Does the school feel like a good fit?
When researching a potential boarding school, make sure to visit at least once. Walking the grounds, talking to the staff and meeting current pupils will be the best way to get to know the school and its ethos.
Remember, your youngster could be spending a large portion of their formative years here. Some boarding schools will take children at a young age, all the way to 18 or 19 years old, and if living at the school your child will spend a lot of time there.
Every school has its history and sets out the attributes it hopes to instil in its pupils. These factors will attract generations of the same family back to the school and help form its character.
If you walk the grounds and don’t feel welcome, or if the atmosphere is too elitist, look somewhere else. Listen to your child’s opinion: if they don’t feel excited to attend, the school is probably not a good fit.
9. What is the school’s reputation like?
There’s a lot of marketing that goes into attracting new pupils, so do ask around. The school will pull out all the stops on glossy brochures, smart websites and fancy open days, but they can’t pay everyone to sell the school.
Ask friends who have also searched for boarding schools, seek out online forums and read reports written by independent inspectors. These should give you a good idea of how the school works day to day.
It may be that behind the gloss, the school’s exam results aren’t that great, or they fail to support pupils with learning difficulties. There could even be a bullying problem that the school has failed to address.
8. Does the school cater for your child’s needs?
Even if all the expense of school fees does mean a higher quality of teaching, your child may just not thrive in the classroom.
Dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, autism and attention deficit disorders can all hamper learning in even the most intelligent kids, and these difficulties can sometimes be difficult to recognise. Many adults only find out later in life that they suffer with one or more learning difficulties.
State schools are obliged to offer support for kids who struggle in class, but many boarding schools operate independently. It’s unlikely that the school has no programme in place to help pupils conquer these difficulties, but do make sure that your child can get whatever specific support they need.
7. What pastoral care is on offer?
Your little ones are going to be spending a long time away from home. You won’t be there to talk to them about their day and make sure that everything is alright. Any struggles in the classroom, on the playing field or in the dorm room can be a lonely battle for children to fight.
Luckily schools take their duty of care very seriously and place great emphasis on what they call ‘pastoral care’. This usually involves older pupils mentoring the younger ones, and members of staff acting as assigned caretakers.
The way in which this system works varies from school to school. Some may place the emphasis on the pupil coming forward with any issues. Others may set aside dedicated time for staff to talk directly with pupils about their wellbeing and progress.
The school is likely to be divided into ‘houses’, a system children will be familiar with from Harry Potter. This allows pupils to have a ready-made friendship group within the school. This group will include older pupils who can act as mentors and role models, and house pride often forms the core of much of school life.
It is important to ensure that you feel comfortable entrusting your child to the care of the school. Whilst you may be able to contact your kids by phone or email, their first port of call in any crisis will be someone from the school.
6. What is the school’s specialism?
Many schools boast a special emphasis on certain subjects. They may focus on Maths and Science, or on Latin and Theology. Others build on core subjects with arts and sports, with some schools offering a comprehensive range of outdoor activities and adventure sports.
It’s important to make sure the school offers a useful mix of skills for your child’s future. Whilst Classics and Ancient Greek might have impressed employers in the 1930s, the subjects aren’t so transferable to the modern workplace. Seek out schools which guarantee the basic subjects that universities will be looking for: English, maths, science and languages.
With the core curriculum in place, see what the school offers that will make the most of your offspring’s talents. Budding IT whizzes can find a place a schools which teach technology and engineering to a level not found elsewhere. Some schools may have partnerships with universities or colleges that will give pupils access to an even wider range of qualifications or chances to study overseas.
There’s no point sending your budding young engineer to a school that specialises in the arts, or your keen young thespian to an institution focused on sport. Make sure you find somewhere that will develop your child’s best subjects as well as giving them a solid basis in core skills.
5. Is a religious school what you want?
Boarding schools tend to be old institutions – some centuries old – with links to religious groups that are even older. Certain colleges were founded on religious lines and some are still run by monks, nuns and clergymen.
It’s illegal for any school to deny a pupil a place on the grounds of their religious belief, but some schools do a better job than others of catering for diverse faiths. Christian chapel services are a common feature of boarding school life, but some schools will provide alternative services for Jewish and Muslim pupils.
It is also entirely possible that your family is agnostic and seeks a secular education for your child. There aren’t many dedicated non-denominational schools on the market in Britain, but it is possible to find them. There are also schools which concentrate on academic life, where religion is present but not a major part of schooling.
4. Do the term dates work for you?
Boarding school is not just a school with extra childcare. Different schools work to different timetables. Some may expect your child to put in work over the weekend in return for extra-long holidays. Other schools may close down altogether at the weekend, with the expectation that parents will be there to collect their children on a Friday.
If you are intending to be on the other side of the world, coming back every weekend to pick up your offspring isn’t going to work. On the other hand, having a extra few weeks with them over Christmas or summer could be a great opportunity to take family holidays and catch up on missed time.
Many boarding schools offer a range of options, with pupils able to attend just during the day, throughout the week or over weekends too. It may be that your child can attend as a full boarder whilst you work overseas, but then change to being a ‘day pupil’ once you return.
3. Extra-curricular activities
Schools will offer a range of activities over and above the academic. These are a healthy diversion from hours of study, but also an exciting opportunity for pupils to try new and exciting things.
A range of sports is likely to take place regularly in the school, with houses competing in football, rugby, hockey and cricket. Kids may also get the chance to try outdoor pursuits like rock climbing, hiking and orienteering, gaining extra certificates like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Some schools may even have their own yacht on which pupils can try sailing.
There are schools which will provide a home not just for your offspring, but for their ponies as well. For those without their own horses, riding lessons will likely be available on school horses.
Boarding schools often have a long connection with the British military, providing officers to the army, navy and air force. This tradition is kept alive by Combined Cadet Forces: youth organisations within boarding schools that teach youngsters about fitness, discipline and a range of military skills.
Boarding school is expensive; fees can sometimes equal the average income.
That’s not to say there aren’t ways to soften the blow. Discounts may be offered to pupils whose parents are working in military or diplomatic roles.
Other pupils may be able to apply for bursaries or scholarships which may cover all or part of the cost of schooling. These vary by school and may be dependant on showing financial need as well as exceptional academic performance.
Schools with specialist subjects are likely to have scholarships for pupils that excel in their specialism. Sports colleges may accept outstanding athletes for free.
1. Is boarding school right for your child?
Even if all the details seem to be in order, if the school offers the right courses and the term dates work well, there may be one thing that isn’t right. Your child may not be ready for boarding school.
Life away from the family is a big change for youngsters. You are asking them to be separated from their friends, from you and to live day and night in a culture that is very different. Such a change would be tough for an adult, but for a child it could be heartbreaking.
Even some of the famous alumni listed above didn’t enjoy their years at boarding school. Prince Charles yearned for home and George Orwell hated his school forcing him to leave the library and hit the sports field.
Think very carefully before committing your money and your child to years of separation and structured life. Some parents want the bragging rights and prestige that comes with sending their offspring to an expensive school, others see it as the simplest solution to a childcare problem. Remember to put your child’s welfare first and foremost in making decisions.
Have you sent your child to boarding school? Share your experiences in the comments.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer