“This is going to be so much fun,” says Maya from the top bunk bed. Maya is seven years old; this is her first day at boarding school.
It is the start of term at Cheltenham College Preparatory School in Gloucestershire, which takes boarders aged 7-13. Across the road, Cheltenham College offers education to the age of 18. Maya is among 13 new boarders arriving at the prep school today; her 12-year-old sister Anna has been at Cheltenham for two years already.
“I’m looking forward to doing netball in the afternoon,” Maya says. “And having friends and fun and stuff. Watching TV.”
And, she adds, she missed Anna when her sister went off to boarding school without her. “Sometimes I cried,” she says. “Now I’m with her, I won’t cry any more.”
Their father, Major Michael Forde, looks on. Like many in the armed forces, Forde is moved to a new posting every two or three years. He has chosen to send his daughters to boarding school so that they don’t have to change schools with the same regularity.
“I don’t know how I’d have felt at her age,” he says of Maya. “I think I’d have been quite excited. We found with Anna that, at first, she was ringing us every day.”
Anna looks up from the unpacking. “And now, basically, I never ring,” she says.
“But we’re glad she’s busy,” her father says. “Both my wife and I work full-time. So, you get to the weekend and you just want to go ‘aaah’.” He mimes relaxing. “Whereas here, they have trips and activities. It’s a bit like school and summer camp combined.”
The majority of full boarders at Cheltenham are drawn from military families. Among them are brothers Ciaran and Aidan – 8 and 10 respectively – whose father is currently based in Cyprus. “My husband travels a lot for work,” says their mother, Michelle Portch. “We wanted to have the stability for them to have lifelong friends, and to go right through to A-levels in the one school.”
“I don’t know if I’ll get emotional,” she adds, although she looks as though she may be making a considerable effort already. “It’s a hard decision to make, to put your children into boarding school. But if they’re happy and they run off to play, then it’ll be OK. It will just hit me in a couple of weeks’ time, I think.”
In the hall, headmaster Jonathan Whybrow is meeting new boarders and their parents over tea and cake. There are 40 full boarders at Cheltenham, taking up half the beds. In addition, flexi-boarders stay for part of the week, or simply choose to board for a couple of nights each term. In total, three-quarters of the beds are usually full. “If we were a hotel, we’d be delighted,” Whybrow says.
Although the school takes boarders from the age of 7, they are generally very few in number. “The market speaks,” says Whybrow. “Though, like anything in education, it’s an arbitrary age. We have children who are 5 who would happily board and children who are 12 who would never like it in their lives.”
He pauses to greet 12-year-old Pablo, who has until now been living in Madrid. His parents are keen for each of their children to spend a year at school in England, “to learn English, be with English people, make English friends”, Pablo says.
His mother, Laura Benedit, gives a rueful smile. “In the end, it’s a sacrifice I have to make as a mother,” she says. “But I do it because it’s the best for him and because he wants it. I would never send a child if he didn’t want to go.”
She glances at her husband, Santiago, whose opinions on boarding are somewhat more clear-cut. “Being at home is good,” he says. “But part of developing is being outside and solving your own problems, not going to mummy and daddy.”
2.30pm Boarding house tour
Head of boarding Bob Wells leads new arrivals on a tour of the boarding house. The children troop into his family’s living room. Sunlight streams through sash windows. “This is where our boarding life and family life meet,” Wells says. “Saturday is movie night and this room is full of children, all with their duvets, watching movies.”
Eleven-year-old Josie Grounds, who is joining Year 7, studies a poster on the wall itemising some of the other weekend activities on offer: climbing, ice-skating, a theatre trip. Josie’s father, an army major, is posted in Kenya, where Josie’s family will return after dropping her off.
Wells leads the families towards the dorms. Every boarding-house corridor also has a red phone, he says, with only one button on it. The phone can be used any time of the day or night. Pressing the button will put a child straight through to whichever house parent is on duty.
The dorms themselves are airy and bright. Each has eight beds – four bunk beds – as well as a sofa and pictures on the walls. The girls’ dorm for Years 2 and 3 has only two living in it: Maya and an eight-year-old whose family is from Ghana.
Year 8 pupils, meanwhile, have their own corridor, with a series of two-bed cubicles running from it. One of these belongs to 12-year-old Hermione Lloyd-Horton. “I’ve always wanted to board,” she says. “My mum wanted me to board. I used to read all these books about boarding – Malory Towers and St Clare’s – and I wanted to see what the experience is like. I’ve always liked being independent.”
Her parents have just moved to London from Singapore, and she is new to the school – and to boarding – this year.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to start any younger,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot of things from my parents that I wouldn’t have learned if I’d been boarding. And I might have been more detached from my parents, maybe. But, from boarding, I’ll learn to do things without being told.”
The parents have gone, their farewells said in private. Immediately, Wells and his staff launch boarders into a succession of evening activities. First is a barbecue. The sun is shining, and pupils play badminton and table tennis. Wells continues to be unfailingly cheerful. “Keep them busy, so they don’t suffer from separation anxiety,” he says. “That’s the purpose of tonight.”
Josie sits talking to another Year 7 pupil, whose father has just been promoted to a job in Northern Ireland.
“So you’re going to be an overseas one?” Josie says. “So am I. I live in Kenya, so when I finished primary school I had no choice.” She bursts into tears, but keeps talking. “Unless I wanted to go to Nairobi, but I didn’t want to, because there’ve been riots there.”
The tears are still coming. “I’m sorry. My parents have just left,” she says. One of the house parents intervenes. Wrapping her arm around Josie, she leads her off to a corner of the lawn.
“Ice cream!” Wells calls. There are responding screams of enthusiasm from the children.
At the edge of the lawn, Irene Jones, one of three boarding house matrons, surveys the children. She nods across the grass. “Hermione looks a little bit frightened. But she’s made friends, which is good.”
Jones has been working as a matron at Cheltenham for 16 years. “Tonight will be fine,” she says. “Tomorrow night, it will hit them that they’ve got to stay another night. And the next night could be the worst one, because they realise that they have to stay again.”
Josie is now being led back to the barbecue. House parents usually try to give homesick children a realistic time frame to work within. In Josie’s case, her mother will not return to Kenya for a while, so Josie will see her during a free weekend in four weeks’ time. The house parent tries to express this in manageable terms – “only four weekends”, for example – accompanied by a countdown calendar.
“I’ve never met a child who we haven’t turned around eventually,” Jones says. “It can take longer with some. But I’ve never had a child who doesn’t eventually decide that they quite like boarding.”
7pm Mr Wells’ meeting
The children sit on the floor, some still eating ice lollies. First, there are introductions. Midway through these, Jones runs over to seven-year-old Maya, who is being overwhelmed by lolly drips. Taking her by the hand, Jones leads her to the bathroom to clean up.
After the introductions, Wells asks the children to find out fascinating facts about one another. As the children mingle, Jones and fellow matron Gill Neale watch them. “There’s a very nervous one there,” Neale says, nodding towards Maya. “Because she’s got her hands in front of her.”
Before bedtime, Wells reminds children about the single-button red telephones. “It really is just if you’re feeling unwell,” he says.
“Or, in this first week, if you’re feeling homesick,” says Whybrow.
“Yes,” says Wells. “I think homesick qualifies as unwell.”
Neale is holding Maya’s hand and leading her to the bathroom. “She said her knee hurts,” Neale says. “I’ve said it’s growing pains. It’s not. It’s homesickness. When she comes out of the shower, we’re going to put some cream on it. Often, that’s all they need – show that someone cares.”
While Maya showers, Neale deals with a series of requests from children who have forgotten shower gel, shampoo and toothbrushes. Then Maya’s eight-year-old dorm-mate comes running up to her. “Maya’s lost her sponge,” she says. “It’s red and white and she needs it.”
Neale heads over to the bathroom. “This could be another tactic,” she says. “She’s feeling homesick; she’s lost her sponge; she needs to go home to find it.”
Neale doesn’t go into the bathroom. She is always going in and out of the dormitories, she says, and wants to give the children what privacy she can. As she waits outside, Josie and her friends come out. “Was she crying?” says Maya’s dorm-mate of Josie. “She had red eyes.”
“I don’t know,” Neale says. “I didn’t notice. But sometimes it’s best not to notice. If lots of people keep going to somebody and keep saying ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ they feel worse and worse. So it’s knowing when to step in and when to step away.”
Bedtimes are carefully structured. There is quiet reading time, followed by storytime, followed by lights out. Structure, Wells says, helps the children to settle into a routine.
Tonight, however, there has been too much excitement. It is already well past Maya’s bedtime when she finally curls up to sleep. Neale promises dorm games and a story tomorrow, to make up for the lack of a story tonight.
Then she moves on to the next dorm. “Mrs Neale,” one of the girls says. “What if a fire starts and I don’t wake up?”
Neale starts telling them about the fire drill routine: she will pull the duvet off every bed, she says.
The girl in the next bed sits up. “What if a fire starts and we’re locked in the dorm?” she says.
Wells comes in to wish the girls goodnight. Neale asks him to reassure them about the fire safety system, so he runs through the sensitivity of the fire alarms, the positioning of fire extinguishers, the efficacy of fire doors. “Do you all feel OK about it now?” he says. “We’ll look after you. Don’t worry.”
“Pain au chocolat!” someone yells. The children rush to form a queue for breakfast, jostling in a huddle of blazers with extra growing room. Maya is among them, wearing a kilt that looks as if it has been made for a child twice her size. “The first night was great,” she says. “We talked about fairies. That was fun.”
“Everyone slept through,” Wells says, surveying the line. “Not one single call.”
In the wood-panelled hall, Pablo tucks into his breakfast. Nearby, Hermione is similarly bright-eyed. “It was a bit hard to sleep at first,” she says. “But I always have a problem getting to sleep in a new bed, so I expected it.” She finishes her breakfast and skips off.
While the children eat, Wells reminds them to brush their teeth and hair before school, and to leave their dorms tidy.
Maya is still only halfway through a piece of toast, and not sure whether she wants more. One of the house parents fetches jam for her. “If you need anything, just let me or the catering staff know,” she says. Maya nods.
The boarders must check in with Wells before heading off for lessons. “Morning, Hermione,” he says. “You’re looking very smart.” He tells her to do up the top buttons of her shirt. “You’re used to living in a hot country, aren’t you?”
Aidan and Ciaran are about to leave, but Wells stops them. Their mother wants a photograph of their first day of school, he says. “Give a big smile! Say ‘I love school’.”
Then Josie emerges from her dorm, looking serious. “All fine, Josie?” Wells says. “Know where you’re going?” He pauses. “Good luck. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Josie heads off down the staircase to school.
Fay Wells, Bob’s wife and head of science, offers to take the smallest children to their lessons. First she drops off Ciaran, then Maya’s dorm-mate. Finally, she leads Maya to her classroom. Maya gives her a doleful smile before wandering over to a desk.
Around Maya, day pupils in similarly oversized kilts are arriving. One is led by her mother into the classroom. “Have fun, lovely girl,” the mother says, kissing her daughter on the head. “Love you.”
The girl takes a seat next to Maya and they smile at one another. “If they didn’t get homesick at all, that would be quite worrying,” Fay Wells says. “Because they love their parents, they miss their parents. It would be very sad if they didn’t.” She gives Maya a final wave and shuts the classroom door.
Responding to the challenge with ‘flexi-boarding’
Robin Fletcher (pictured), national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, has suggested that one of the key challenges facing prep-school boarding is that it has become more socially unacceptable to send children under the age of 11 to board.
He made the comments at Bedales School’s conference on boarding in May. Here, he expands on that point.
Over the years, as family dynamics have changed and the boarding sector has seen an increase in first-time buyers, the number of children boarding full-time under the age of 11 has been a challenge for many preparatory schools.
However, as with all changing markets, our member schools have changed their offering.
In order to cater for the growing trend where both parents work long hours and often travel for business, pupils begin their boarding career as a flexi or weekly boarder, moving towards full-time boarding as they grow older. This provides pupils with time to settle into a boarding routine and offers parents a flexible solution.