And then there’s transport. You used to congratulate yourself that your child’s journey to their school, just one easy bus or train ride away, would foster independence. Now it seems like thrusting your precious one into enemy territory twice a day.
Driving is out – how’s an hour’s school run each way supposed to fit in with working from home and breakfast Zoom meetings? Could boarding school be the answer?
It always has been for the children of diplomats or others working abroad (fees often subsidised by employers) or for the international super-busy, super-rich set.
For a dwindling few families it remains an unbroken tradition passed from (usually) father to son. On the gilded honours’ boards in boys’ full boarding schools such as Radley, Winchester, Harrow or Eton, one can trace fathers, grandfathers and uncles going back generations.
When The Good Schools Guide was first published in 1986, pastoral care, pupils’ wellbeing and, sadly, child protection were not routinely front and centre of schools’ concerns.
For many children, school was a place to survive, rather than thrive. Now, boarders have comfortable study bedrooms, plentiful food, yoga studios, mindfulness sessions, counselling services and occasionally even en suite bathrooms. The often-censored weekly letter home has been replaced by email and Facetime calls.
Parents can contact staff instantly, and vice versa. Today children aren’t ‘sent away’ to boarding school, they choose to go (no school wants to take a pupil against their will). Even so, for most parents the prospect is unthinkable, unaffordable or both.
But that was before Covid-19 made bustling streets and crowded public transport a virus minefield and the metaphor of protective bubbles a reality. After all, what is a boarding school if not an educational bubble complete with green acres and healthy fresh air?
Amid noise and anti-government fury in the state sector, where provision for pupils during the pandemic has ranged from heroic to negligible (and all points between), independent schools – and particularly boarding schools – have changed and adapted fast to the multiple challenges thrown at them by the pandemic.
It’s almost as if their livelihoods depended on it. Robust plans are in place to ensure pupils’ safe return in September. The Boarding Schools Association (BSA) has published its own Covid-Safe Charter, to which over 100 BSA member schools have signed up.
The charter is regularly updated to reflect latest government advice and covers everything from cleaning to travel and quarantine arrangements for international pupils. Individual schools are also keeping current parents fully informed about what their new normal will look like.
A British private school education is still regarded by the wealthy of the world as a must-have and boarding schools have long been enriched culturally, as well as financially, from a steady stream of international pupils to keep their dormitories full. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, several senior boarding school heads have told The Good Schools Guide that thus far the pandemic and its financial consequences do not seem to have deterred applications from international or UK-based pupils.
Indeed, in response to ever-present demand for information on boarding schools, The Good Schools Guide now produces a book dedicated to this area of education. Of course, the current picture is less rosy for some small, boarding preps where five pupils plus or minus can be the difference between survival and closing for good.
There have already been casualties, such as Ashdown House in Sussex, and more may follow. Over recent decades, full-time boarding has declined (fees now topping £40,000 per annum make it a very privileged minority pursuit) but weekly and flexi-boarding are popular and take-up may increase post-pandemic as parents work all hours to rebuild businesses or shoulder new responsibilities both professional and personal.
Signing your child up to board for a few nights a week cuts down on multiple journeys and lets them enjoy sports, clubs and friendships safely within their school bubble.
If one thing alone has bolstered the popularity of boarding schools and encouraged first-timers into the sector, it’s concerns over children’s preference for screen time and social media over outdoor and creative pursuits. This anxiety has peaked during lockdown when technology has been both a blessing and a curse. No boarding school guarantees a completely phone-free pastoral idyll, but most have strict rules limiting the use of personal devices. Parents wholeheartedly approve; children do not.
However tempting the boarding school bubble might sound, particularly at the moment, don’t get carried away by visions of Hogwarts (exciting, but some health and safety work to be done there) or drift into a nostalgia fest courtesy of Malory Towers.
A child’s lockdown-induced grey complexion will not automatically assume a bucolic bloom just because they now sleep in a dormitory. Boarding school is still, first and foremost school. Lessons are hard, the sun doesn’t always shine and there’s no guarantee of a place in the first team.
Challenge is as much part of the culture as care. But for the right child, at the right school, boarding has a huge amount to offer.
Janita Gray is editor of Boarding Schools at The Good Schools Guide.
‘Boarding Schools from The Good Schools Guide’ can be pre-ordered now. Click here.
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