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Snuggle down for a sleepover

Biddy Passmore reports on a more modern, flexible approach to boarding.

"Supersleeper" may conjure up images of a luxury train speeding to an exotic destination. But, at St Andrew's School in Eastbourne, it is the latest term for weekly boarding.

St Andrew's, a mixed preparatory school with 430 mainly day pupils, is in the forefront of moves to make boarding more appealing by making it more flexible. Parents going on holiday? Little Johnnie and Kate can board for a week or two. Having a dinner party on Friday night? The children can "sleep over" at school with their friends. Car broken down? No need to call for a taxi to collect the children; they can stay the night.

For pound;12.50 a night - often cheaper, as the school points out, than hiring a baby-sitter - children get bedclothes, a light supper, evening entertainment and a breakfast that ranges from cereal through bacon and egg to croissants. And the school can lend even teddies at short notice.

In the best traditions of marketing, potential customers can have one trial night free and regular customers get a reduced rate. Now, with Supersleeper, children will be able to stay for five nights every week for less than the cost of sleeping over for four.

One highly satisfied customer is Vicky Eckert, two of whose daughters sleep over regularly. With a husband often away on business, the flexibility of the boarding arrangement has saved her having to get an au pair, she says. "By the time I've driven down to Eastbourne in the Range Rover I've probably spent pound;4-pound;5 on petrol anyway".

Once St Andrew's was a conventional boarding prep school: 50-60 boys would arrive at the start of term and not see their parents again until the end. Today, it is a modern, co-educational school.

Many of the country's traditional boarding schools are having to adapt to survive. While the most prestigious schools such as Eton and Winchester have continued to attract large numbers of applicants, the overall trend in boarding has been inexorably downwards.

Between 1985 and 1997, the number of pupils in boarding schools fell from 126,000 to 77,000, although overall numbers in the independent sector grew, according to the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS).

One big factor in the decline was the dramatic drop in the number of pupils with parents in the armed forces, down from 22,000 in 1988 to fewer than 6,000 in 1996. Parents also started to balk at the idea of boarding for younger children.

A key problem has been boarding's old-fashioned image, according to the Boarding Education Alliance, set up a year ago to win back boarding pupils. The brainchild of Edward Gould, headmaster of Marlborough College, the pound;250,000, three-year campaign has now enlisted the support of more than 180 schools.

Market research carried out for the alliance by the Henley Centre found that boarding's public image lagged well behind the reality. Parents were felt to be "sending away" their children to dwell in bleak dormitories where they would be ruled over by starched matrons and older boys of uncertain temper.

"Boarding's public image hasn't shifted since the 1930s," says Ann Williamson, the alliance's campaign director and formerly head of West Heath in Kent, a girls' school which the campaign was too late to save. She adds: "Boarding has changed from the inside out. It has become a modern service that works because it involves parents, stimulates children and delivers academic and social results."

At the Mount, a day and boarding girls' school in York, the change to modern boarding is going to involve "the warm and homely touch" of Laura Ashley. The company has underwritten the cost of refurbishing the boarding house for middle-school pupils with the help of Sarah Dallas, a sixth-former studying design and technology at A-level. Day girls in the senior school are already encouraged to "sleep over".

Underlying the flexible approach to boarding is the fact that 40 per cent of boarders now live within one hour's drive of their school - and parents these days want to see their children regularly.

Often it is the pupils themselves who ask to board rather than a decision imposed by their parents. As one 12-year-old at St Andrew's remarked: "I like it because I can be with my friends for a while without being away from my parents for ages".

Already, there are signs that this "softly softly" approach is beginning to reverse the decline in boarding. Not only did ISIS register 13,000 day pupils spending a total of 95,000 "sleepover" nights in last year's census; the decline in the number of boarding pupils was also the slowest in 10 years.

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