Surprise surge in prep school boarders belies the recession
The recession should have been the single biggest reason for expecting the numbers enrolling at prep boarding schools to nosedive. But a combination of spectacular increases in the number of girls attending and economic conditions forcing parents to put more time into their well-paid jobs is having the opposite effect.
New statistics show that a greater number of parents are taking the unorthodox decision to send their children away to prep schools, which traditionally look after pupils aged seven to 13. This week, the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) said the number of its schools offering boarding facilities had gone up 7 per cent in the past year, with 218 now taking boarders compared with 204 in 2010.
The number of boys and girls attending prep boarding school during the same period is up 4 per cent to 13,945, with the figure for girls rising 18 per cent to 5,762.
The jump continues a trend that has seen the number of girls rise and rise in the past few years. There are now 23 per cent more girls at prep boarding school than in 2008. By contrast, the number of boys seems to be in sustained decline, with 2011's figure of 8,183 nearly 7 per cent down on 2008.
IAPS chief executive David Hanson said he was not surprised by the surge in numbers. "Typically, girls are more mature in the prep school years. Enlightened parents understand that boarding brings greater independence."
Following the 2008 financial crash, the number of schools offering boarding facilities fell, reflecting the impact of the recession. But the latest IAPS figures suggest parents are redoubling their efforts to send their children to establishments with facilities that are a long way from the stereotypes of austere dormitories and cold showers that have long dogged prep boarding schools.
"The credit crunch has meant parents are under greater work pressures with long hours, or have to relocate with their careers," said Adrian Palmer, head of Wycliffe College's prep school near Stroud in Gloucestershire. Last year, the college opened an 84-bed boarding house to cope with increased demand.
Mr Hanson said many families were choosing to send children to boarding schools because it was cheaper than employing a full-time nanny. And he added that boarding schools had been forced to upgrade their facilities. "We've seen a rise in centres of excellence. No modern child will put up with a miserable environment," he said.
And there is another reason why boarding numbers are going up. "We are preparing children and their parents for the top boarding schools," said Peter Kirk, head of Bilton Grange prep school in Rugby.
The number of boarders at his school - which offers full, weekly or flexible boarding - went up one-fifth to 71 per cent last year.
"Senior schools recognise the extra independence and confidence a boarding school child has," he added. "Removing the novelty of boarding is well received by these schools."
Mr Kirk said that pupils leave his school to go to some of the best-known independents in the country: Rugby, which accounts for the biggest number, Arundel, Uppingham and Eton.
"Boarding at prep schools is about getting parents used to the idea as well," Mr Kirk said. "It's a big commitment and parents need to be comfortable with it."
THE FLEXI OPTION
Prep schools are increasingly offering parents and children the chance to try out "flexi" boarding.
Chris Calvey, head of Ardingly College prep school near Haywards Heath in West Sussex, said over half of his 260 pupils will have boarded at the school during the course of the next year.
The school ditched full boarding to concentrate on weekly and flexi boarders, and Mr Calvey said parents were seeing the advantages of children staying for two nights a week. "There's an array of activities we can offer well into the evening and parents see it makes sense to have this," he said.
Parents, he added, are aware that boarding can strengthen friendships formed between children during the school day.