Boarding prep schools are back in fashion. Here’s how to choose the best one for your child…
Boarding prep schools traditionally took eight-year-old boys and prepared them for boarding senior schools like Eton, Harrow, Radley and Winchester. Boarding meant a couple of exeat days either side of a four-day half term and their parents saw very little of them. But times have changed, boarding has changed and so have parents’ needs.
Which boarding prep?
Some top prep schools still offer full boarding, with more exeats, nine-day half terms and excellent results. Cothill annually buses in ten to 15 boys to Eton for the pre-test. Simon Barber, head of Ludgrove, estimates that 70 per cent of his boys go to Eton, Harrow or Radley.
But the same ethos can be found in schools with a more flexible attitude to boarding. ‘We have them here for huge periods of time and that gives them the opportunity to engage with all sorts of activities, which is very hard at a day school,’ explains Tom Bunbury, headmaster of Papplewick. The school offers weekly and flexi-boarding, which can mean staying at school one night a week or coming home once a week, and anything in between. The parents get time to work, their children get a sleepover with their friends (along with any number of teddies), and everybody then gets together at the weekends.
But it isn’t just the boys who are crying out to board. At Hanford in Dorset, 100 little girls from seven to 13 years old run riot around their passionate teachers and then go on to some of the most academic schools in the country. They live in a dreamy 16th-century Elizabethan manor house with an even dreamier architecturally Grade I-listed stable block.
Recognising this female demand, many of the older boys’ prep schools have gone co-ed. Some, like the Dragon, 650 pupils strong but with tiny boarding houses, always were.
When to board
But equally as important as the question of whether to board is when. ‘Eight or wait?’ sums up Desmond Devitt, the Dragon School’s registrar. ‘It is not an easy decision because the ‘runway’ from eight to 13 is only so long. If you take off half way, the ascent has to be steeper. Nine or ten is good, before the pre-tests kick in.’
So what is it about boarding life that persuades loving mothers to part with their cherubs pre-puberty? Well, for starters, boarding schools protect childhood. It’s a home away from home.
The ethos is almost Enid Blytonesque, with an old-fashioned and treasured emphasis on caring manners and politeness. They take the pain out of bringing up small, active and cheeky children, especially if dad’s not around to remind boys to ‘respect’ their mother.
Electronics are out; play, whether it’s climbing trees, fishing, hanging around with a cricket bat or something more structured, is in. And there’s so much to do that children don’t have time to be homesick. They can try things out and build up a repertoire of hobbies. After all, what’s the first thing a senior school asks at that all-important interview? The list of extras available on campus is breath-taking and endless; everything from martial arts, polo and clay pigeon shooting to any type of musical instrument. There’s acting, woodwork, bee-keeping, photography, creative design and learning about cool things like 3D computers. Best of all, it comes without all the commuting, so they have time to just be – a quality which is being increasingly revered by educators everywhere.
Ten top tips on what to look for
- Ask how many pupils are full boarding. You don’t want your child to be the only one.
- What weekend activities are there?
- Many Brits prefer their children to go to local schools, so don’t judge the school on the numbers going to senior schools 50 miles away.
- Visit the library. Look for child-friendly newspapers and knowledgeable librarians. Ask if computer use is monitored.
- Meet the SENCo, (special educational needs coordinator). You may need them.
- Ask about extras: and find out how this is timetabled.
- Consider who will look after them at exeats if you cannot.
- Ask to meet matron, who will look after your child at night-time.
- How are dorms regulated? Is there a mentoring system?
- Follow your instincts. Ask yourself if you like the head. He/she will be looking after your child.