Many of the UK’s oldest and most famous schools are outside the South East - Rugby, Bryanston, Oundle, Marlborough, Millfield and Cheltenham – to give just some examples, and I’m keen to encourage parents to think a little more broadly when selecting schools to come and visit. Step an hour or two away from London and the options really open up. There are many fantastic alternatives out there that are more than worthy of consideration.
There are currently around 70,000 boarders in independent schools, with 30,000 or so in London and the South East, the majority is actually further afield. There are around 15,000 boarders in the South West for example, with Cheltenham - known widely as a centre for excellence in independent education - at its heart; and improved transport links, high-speed trains, dual carriageway upgrades and alike are making these schools closer and will continue to do so in the future.
With competition in London and the South East ‘at boiling point’ and the media reporting that some children are taking as many as 7 different entrance exams, I’m hoping that parents will open up their vista and think of other options, not least because a great deal of anxiety and stress is being created, for both parents and children, where it’s not needed. There are some fantastic schools out there, and I would encourage parents to cast their nets more widely.
It is certainly true that nearly all children are very happy in their senior schools – whatever they might be - and they thrive. And if you look beyond the London-influenced radius there are some real gems – from academically selective to not-so-selective, all-round schools to ones with very specific emphases such as sport or outward-bound. All-boarding, weekly boarding, flexi-boarding, boarding and day, all boys, all girls, co-ed, - you name it, it’s there and still within relatively easy reach. And these schools, in my experience, are trying their very best to make it as easy as possible for parents. At Cheltenham we’re offering supervised train travel to London for younger boarders in Year 7 and 8 at the Prep. In the Senior School I’ve got around 30 London families with boarding children, and the teenagers tell me that the train journey home is a great chance to catch up on work and get some of those tasks out of the way that they then don’t have to tackle at home. The other thing to bear in mind is that, particularly for boarding places, there is help with fees in the form of bursaries and scholarships, and you might be pleasantly surprised at what’s out there. At Cheltenham we’re providing around £2million a year of fees assistance to pupils.
So what’s being offered by boarding schools beyond the South East? And what might parents be looking out for?
All good boarding schools should be trying to offer that more rounded and complete education. That’s what the extra time we have with the pupils enables us to do. The goal, above all else, has to be to produce givers not takers, young people who are resourceful, leaders, team players, teenagers who are emotionally literate, who are confident not arrogant and who can flourish in their future lives in the broadest, classical, sense of that word.
Often a salient feature of these schools is space, and I think this is really significant. Green spaces, trees, fresh unpolluted air are all things which we know contribute to adolescent wellbeing, balance and perspective – and I am convinced surroundings have a very important part to play in a young person’s educational experience. At Cheltenham, our wellbeing programme – Floreat, which all the Year 9 pupils take - encourages them ‘to notice, to take note of their surroundings and to appreciate beauty in both buildings and in nature.’ We believe that this aesthetic awareness, when it is properly fostered, leads to happiness and fulfillment in the long run.
In some cases schools may be offering a broader social mix and range of backgrounds - certainly a more geographically diverse range of pupils and families from within the UK - and they may also be offering a wider international mix. This can vary considerably from school to school, so it needs proper investigation, but to have a 15% international contingent from over 20 different countries (as we have at Cheltenham) I think is a great balance and provides an exciting educational perspective for the pupils.
Some schools outside London and the South East may be offering a different balance in their curriculum. A balance where academic results certainly matter, but perhaps within a broader perspective and with wider opportunities for children to be involved with life outside the classroom. A pupil experience where the A* - certainly an inevitable requirement of life for some competitive future destinations – is also part of a broader educational offer…. and children are all the happier - and still highly-achieving - for it. Which leads me to what I term as ‘percentage opportunities’ – the chances your son or daughter gets to participate in teams, choirs, orchestras, plays, concerts, matches, tours and all that. Some parents were telling me the other week of friends of theirs whose children have recently transferred to an independent senior school and who - at 13 or 14 years old - seemed to have played their last competitive sports match. The depth of opportunity for their son - who’s no great sportsman - is just not offered in that school. This is often very much connected to the overall size of the school: too big a school can mean no opportunities unless you have considerable ability in a particular area, and school choirs and orchestras where no younger pupils are allowed, regardless of their talent. This I think is something that parents are often not aware of until it’s too late. So if participation matters to you - which I would imagine it very much does if you are thinking of a boarding education - then thinking about the size of school and the depth of its opportunities also matters considerably.
Parents might also like to consider the merits of a town v campus-based school. I’ve worked in both, and both have their advantages. A town like Cheltenham brings good transport links, internationally renowned Literature, Science, Jazz and Music Festivals on our doorsteps - great for academic enrichment, a little inspiration and well-informed university applications! Town schools can provide easy access for boarders to local shops - important for keeping the personal fridge in their room stocked up - and a connection with real life whilst you are being educated which I think can be very sensible.
Finally, parents will want to think about the weekend arrangements, accessibility, transport, and parental involvement in boarding life. Boarding life has changed a great deal in recent years in fact it’s almost unrecognisable from the past. Parents don’t want to ‘give up’ involvement in their teenagers’ education and development just because they are boarding, and nor should they! Saturday morning lessons can provide time for parents to have a nice leisurely morning and then perhaps travel down to the school to watch a match on Saturday afternoon, have a meal out afterwards or travel back. And there’s plenty of opportunities - on the right weekends - to take a Saturday night leave and go home for 24 hours and be back for Sunday evening Chapel in the case of Cheltenham. At the same time, boarding outside the South East tend to offer more of the authentic boarding experience at weekends with plenty of boarders around on Saturday night and Sundays and lots of activities laid on. The draw of the London social scene - which I know a lot of parents worry about - is not nearly as strong. Again though, boarding and weekend arrangements are an area for parents to ask schools carefully about when they visit as there are plenty of variations on a theme. And of course there are now all manner of technological ways of staying in touch with boarders; there are no more queues for your once-a-week call home on the communal telephone! We send a weekly film digest of the week to parents so they are in touch with what’s going on at the school, and there are house twitter feeds, Facetime and Skype all in regular use.
There’s also the question of transport to consider. And schools are often doing a great deal to assist here, with escorted travel for younger boarders, convenient trains for youngsters on Saturday and Sundays or fantastic ‘weekend in’ experiences meaning they want to stay in and enjoy. A really good question to ask a school on a visit, particularly if you’re looking for the genuine full-boarding experience, is about how many pupils are in on Saturday nights.
So there are plenty of very good boarding schools out there, so don’t let geography be a block. Venture further afield, take a look, and I think you’ll be very impressed with what’s on offer.
Dr Alex Peterken, Headmaster