Local schools open up about the magic of boarding – and how a family-led approach has made a significant impact on pupils
When it comes to the way boarding schools are perceived, the legacy of Harry Potter and Hogwarts has a lot to answer for. Sorting hats, haunted staircases, owl-delivered post and amazing banquets make the whole idea of staying at school not just appealing – but enviable. Enid Blyton’s enduringly popular Malory Towers and St Clare’s series of books, with their more traditional depictions of midnight feasts and dorm rivalries, really haven’t done a bad job either. While many of the familiar aspects of boarding remain – there’s plenty of friendly rivalry between houses, and midnight feasts aren’t unknown either – there have also been some welcome changes for the better. Boarders these days actually get a say, something that would have been unheard of in previous generations – and that starts with the decision to board. As Gresham’s School points out: “The choice of whether your child attends boarding school rarely sits with the parent alone. It is now much more frequently a family decision that can be almost solely led by the child.” There’s a similar pattern at other schools. “We’re increasingly seeing that the pupils themselves will ask to board because they see the advantages – the fun and the educational benefits – and so say to their parents: ‘I’d like to have a go at that!’” reports George Masters, senior deputy head at Felsted School. There are other changes, too. Gone are large dorms with rows of metal beds and draught-friendly windows. Today, it’s rare to find more than a handful of pupils sharing a room, and at the top end of the school, senior pupils are often afforded their own space or share with just one other student. The way boarding accommodation looks does still vary substantially by school and heritage, depending on the vintage and character of the building. Some boarding houses are historic, with high ceilings and wooden panelling, others are purpose-built or even offer certain refinements such as en-suite bathrooms. At Stoke College, it’s beauty and tradition all the way – part and parcel of an ambience that stems from the school’s history dating back to the 15th century. Its setting right in the heart of the Suffolk countryside is ‘absolutely magical’, says head of boarding Omar Khan. And that includes the boarding houses – one in the former stable block, the other in the main house. “Boasting massive spaces, high ceilings and panelled windows, both have stood the test of time.” The two boarding houses at the Stephen Perse Foundation – home to students aged 15-18 – are set in equally stunning surroundings near the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, designed with modernity in mind. It’s all about making boarding feel like a home from home helped by situating the boarding houses a short walk from the school. “Boarders like the fact they are not ‘at school’ 24/7 and ‘come home’ at the end of the day,” comments the school. For boarders at Felsted, there’s an appealing mix-and-match approach. “Some boarding houses are that bit older, others are purpose-built,” states George Masters. However, all have their charms, enhanced by regular reinvestment and upgrades. But regardless of age, fixtures and fittings increasingly have a high-quality feel to them – some schools have invested huge amounts in high-end design. Constants include a cosy common room in each house and comfortable sofas for lounging in, making it a place to relax once the academic day is done.
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