Heather Harris packs her trunk and her tuck box
Lacrosse sticks, midnight feasts in the dorm and girls called Gwendoline… For those of us brought up on a literary diet rich in Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil (while our brothers were cheerfully devouring Thomas Hughes’s altogether more sadistic Tom Brown’s Schooldays) this was the shared view of boarding school life. While some of my friends yearned to own a pony or to pirouette with the Royal Ballet, I simply wanted to pack my trunk full of condensed milk, tinned sardines (by all accounts, the standard midnight feast menu) and industrial navy knickers and enrol in what sounded like one massive term-long sleepover with the odd lesson with a batty chemistry teacher or quirky Mam’zelle in between.
Roll on several decades and currently 66,776 young people (29,605 girls and 37,171 boys) are doing exactly that, along with a slightly larger number of boys. There are 700 boarding schools registered in the UK and the vast majority have waiting lists.
Hilary Moriarty, National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, tells me, “In the increasingly difficult economic market, the fact that pupil figures have held steady over the last eight years is an excellent commendation of what boarding schools have to offer both modern parents and pupils.”
That’s echoed by Diana Rose, Headmistress of the The Royal Masonic School for Girls in Rickmansworth, which has 150 girls currently boarding alongside 750 day girls who dip in and out of flexi-boarding (of which, more later). “Boarding makes a lot of sense for modern families, where it is the norm for both parents to work,” she explains. “Families are now accustomed to paying substantial nursery fees to facilitate working mothers and boarding is a natural progression. Parents know that children are well cared for, that they are busy and engaging in healthy activities that are all on the spot.” Convenience and making best use of the day are also clearly big factors. “There is no need to drive the children backwards and forwards, there is no time wasted in the car,” Ms Rose continues. “Children are playing sport and learning new skills with their friends rather than sitting alone in front of a computer or TV screen”.
Despite common misconceptions, boarding schools did exist long before Enid Blyton, long before Thomas Hughes. The boarding tradition has its roots in the Middle Ages: documents over a thousand years old make references to young boys being sent away to work as pages in great households or to be taught in monasteries. In fact, a plaque at Winchester College puts its foundation as 1382, making it the oldest boarding school in continued operation – presumably with none of the original staff.
Then, come the colonial expansion of the Empire in the late 19th century, upper class British families living abroad began to send their children ‘back home’ to ensure they were educated in the culture (and the climate) of their birth.
The majority of today’s boarding schools are still fee paying but they are certainly not the preserve of the rich and famous. An ever expanding bursary and scholarship system means that a child can earn a place by being talented with the pen, the rugby ball or the trumpet. In fact, there are currently just as many Janes as Gwendolines, and boarding really is an education accessible to everyone, as Diana Rose was keen to stress. “We have girls from a wide range of backgrounds but the one change we have seen recently is a rise in the number of international boarders and a decline in the number of Forces boarders because of changes in government policy.”
I can remember clearly from my nights with a torch under the bed sheets that The Twins at St Clare’s only went home at the end of Chapter Seven when first term ended. And in Malory Towers (Book Three) one poor girl had to live with Matron over the holidays as ‘some dreadful calamity had befallen her guardian’.
Boarding 2013 style is somewhat different. Unlike St Trinians where boys were stink bombed on sight or Tom Brown’s Rugby, where the mere whiff of a girl’s gymslip was enough to close down the school, many of today’s boarding establishments are co-educational. A majority – including The Royal Masonic as well as Berkhamsted Senior Schools and Lockers Park Prep School in Hemel Hempstead – now offer the option of flexi-boarding: one or two nights a week spent in the school dorm instead of at home.
Michael Bond, Headmaster of Berkhamsted Sixth and Head of Boarding, says: “Flexible boarding is currently very popular with boys, especially those living further afield who enjoy the benefits of booking in for a couple of nights a week so they can participate in our wide range of after-school activities.” A greater number of girls using the facility, which Mr Bond sees as integrating school and home to ensure pupils get the ideal education experience. “It allows parents to fulfil work commitments at home or abroad, to ease the burden of long school journeys, or even to provide last minute accommodation when an unexpected crisis arises.”
Weekly boarding, usually at a school not too far from home, offers a convenient ‘halfway house; parents can even nip in mid-week to watch sports matches before picking their child up on Saturday afternoon.
This was the attraction for Jill and Ian Roberts. After looking at all the senior schools in the area for their 13-year-old twins, finally decided to enrol their son, Sam as a weekly boarder at Shiplake College in Henley-on-Thames. “To be honest it wasn’t our first choice. I had been to boarding school and didn’t want my children to go away for weeks on end. But with Shiplake we see him every weekend and it just ticked all the boxes. Sam is now a round pin in a round hole!”
Not that it was all plain sailing – despite Sam being a keen rower. “The biggest problem was his homesickness. We had to take his phone away from him as he was constantly texting! I then felt I had to reply which made him worse. But I alerted the relevant members of staff and they were very considerate and helped him through.”
It is the support by pastoral staff that seems to be the key to a successful time at boarding school for parents and children.
For Debbie Payne, sending her three young daughters to board at prep school in Taunton, Somerset, while she and her naval husband were posted to Gibraltar, was traumatic for everyone. “My youngest was only seven,” she recalls, “and it was awful not being able to help her and her sisters, aged nine and 11, when they were upset over the phone – usually over something trivial. It was frustrating too not being able to just talk to each other spontaneously as often they were busy. But the staff were incredible and knew instinctively how to handle every situation with patience and good humour!”
So incredible were the staff, in fact, that two years later when Debbie and her husband were posted back to Somerset, her daughters all chose to stay as boarders. This brought with it different problems. “They miss me far less than I miss them. At times I barely recognise my teenage daughter as she has developed so much away from me.”
Holidays aren’t easy either. As Debbie said, “When they’re at home they find it difficult not having their whole day organised full of activities. They don’t understand why there are jobs to do as they come home for a break!”
Charlotte Thompson, whose 15-year-old son has just gone back to weekly boarding school after the long summer break, observed a similar problem. “When he comes home during term time we make sure it’s two days of fun – so he couldn’t cope with two months of the mundane and boredom that is the reality of home life!”
It’s hardly surprising that he was desperate to get back to school – something that cannot be said for a lot of day pupils. Speaking to both girls and boys, and across all age groups, the one aspect of boarding school life that still matches the well- thumbed pages of my youth, is the camaraderie, the sense of community.
It is the friendships, the independence and the out-of-school activities (no mention of brewing St Trinian’s moon-shine!) that make them feel ‘superior’ to day pupils. Sam Roberts explains, “We have a lot of fun with things like ‘dorm raids’. We have a house system where we have to respect each other and get on as best we can. Bullying is strictly dealt with. There’s more sport than I thought there would be and the whole atmosphere is more relaxed. We have to work hard but there’s a lot of free time too”.
For Laura Payne, Debbie’s youngest daughter, “It’s all those things like Brownies, riding lessons and Saturday trips to theme parks that we all get to do together with our school friends who come from all over the world that makes it so much fun!” In fact, she adds, “We feel sorry for the day pupils who have to go home every afternoon!”
And while they’re on the rollercoaster with their classmates from Hong Kong or Honolulu, they’re learning some valuable life lessons, as Diana Rose points out to me. “Boarding prepares young people to be independent, tolerant and compassionate, and cultivates the personal skills that employers say are so lacking in young people today. They are accustomed to learning alongside girls from all over the world who are operating in a second language. They see the competition that they will face at uni and in the employment market and this is an important lesson for life; making friendships across national boundaries is a huge advantage in today's globalised marketplace”.
It certainly sounds appealing – a win-win situation in fact. Now if I could just get over that ridiculous nagging guilt at the thought of passing my children into someone else’s care for the majority of their childhood, I am sure they’d benefit hugely from the experience. In the meantime, though, they’ll have to rely on Harry Potter after ‘lights out’ to satisfy their fascinating for boarding school life…