Boarding schools, for many people, conjure up bleak dormitories, cold baths and rich, uncaring parents banishing their small children. This image is then swathed in strong emotions and a dollop of prejudice is thrown in for good measure. But the reality is vastly different and more complex.
For some families, especially those serving in the armed forces or the diplomatic service, the choice is stark: a life for their children of constantly changing schools and countries, or some constancy and consistency of education.
In this week's TES feature, one mother whose eight- and 10-year-old sons are boarders says: “We wanted to have the stability for them to have lifelong friends, and to go right through to A-levels in the one school.”
But her young boys are part of a diminishing breed. At a Bedales School conference in May, Robin Fletcher, national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, spoke about the challenges facing the prep school boarding sector. Schools have adapted by offering flexi or weekly boarding.
The clientele is changing, too, as this quintessentially English experience becomes increasingly popular with foreign parents: of the 27,211 non-British pupils in independent schools in 2014-15 whose parents live overseas, nearly half were new to their school this year, according to Independent Schools Council figures.
It’s not as straightforward as being places only for rich kids either: there are 38 state boarding schools in England, where parents pay only for the board, not the education.
And it’s not just paying customers who go to boarding schools. Buttle UK is running a three-year research project, which started last month, looking at the impact the schools can have on outcomes for vulnerable children. The charity would eventually like to see at least 10 per cent of places in all boarding schools allocated to such children, with local authorities considering boarding for vulnerable children as standard practice. When only 16 per cent of children assessed as in need achieve five or more good GCSEs, and those in care are more likely to go to prison than to university, this is an important move.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Think Global School (also featured in this week's TES) that offers fortunate teenagers a spot of globetrotting. Students live and study with their teachers in three different countries each year, giving a Victorian European tour-style experience for £52,000 a year. The school’s owner says she tells children from the off: “You are an educational and social experiment. I don’t know if you’re going to come out as the most well-adjusted young adults or you’re all going to need psychiatrists.”
That’s certainly honest and sums up the dilemma in a nutshell. No one really does know. Is criticising boarding schools for causing mental health problems justified or “dangerously inaccurate”, as the Boarding Schools’ Association claims? Or do such schools nurture independence and promote the grit that is so de rigueur?
In the end, once you remove the emotion and the prejudice, a boarding school will be experienced no differently from any other: some children will love it and others won’t. And that’s the way we should judge them, too: a school like any other.