Those whose only experience of packing school trunks is via Mallory Towers, Kingscote or Hogwarts may be relaxed about the rise in boarding-school fees. But with annual fees at some of our best-known boarding schools approaching £40,000, traditional boarding families which don’t include a hedge-fund manager, prime minster or Kazakhstani oligarch may well be casting a nervous eye at the private day school down the road.
Or they, and others who prefer a broader social mix, may instead be applying to a different and little-known breed of boarding school. A state one, where tuition is free. Some charge for extended ‘day-boarding’ places (boarding life without the sleepovers), but full or weekly boarding costs from below £10,000 to around £15,000.
This is not some bright new wheeze: Adams’ Grammar in Shropshire dates from 1656, established by merchant haberdasher William Adams. What it doesn’t have are lavish private-school levels of funding. The boarding houses may be gorgeous Georgian, but they are also tatty in places. As housemaster Matthew Skeate points out, you won’t find a polo team at a state boarding school, and you may have to fish a frog out of the pool occasionally. Not that the pupils care. They are too busy kicking or throwing balls in the 100-acre grounds; or rehearsing for one of the big school productions (head Gary Hickey won a special commendation for ‘extraordinary work in drama’ in the 2000 National Teaching Awards); or marching with the CCF band (many students go on to careers in the forces).
For parents looking for a traditional boarding-school education, the Adams’ junior boarding house in a listed Georgian mansion surrounded by parkland has a reassuringly familiar feel. Boarding masters live on site with their own young families; one even has the private school cliché of a black labrador. ‘We are clearly a viable option for those who would once only have considered a private education,’ says Hickey. ‘We’re very proud of our history and our achievements.’ His is a selective grammar school with results to match: nearly half of A-levels were A*/A in 2015, and four pupils went on to Oxbridge.
It’s true that only some 10 per cent of pupils are boarders, but they are ‘the heart of the school,’ says Hickey. ‘They play a massive part. There’s a unique atmosphere in the boarding houses which they bring into day-school life.’ As with other state boarding schools, those with ‘boarding need’ are a priority: pupils with families abroad or beyond commuting distance, whose parents both work long hours, or who have an unstable home life. Boys from local farms share dormitories with forces children and Londoners with children of Nigerian or Ghanaian heritage. Boarding at Adams’ can provide them with ‘a sense of security and safety,’ says Hickey. ‘They become part of an extended family. Their boarding house is their home.’ And how about that public school confidence? ‘They learn to communicate and get on with adults and children from a range of backgrounds, and to live as part of a community. They make lifelong friends. We watch them grow into confident, articulate young people, and boarding is germane to this.’
The 38 UK state boarding schools cover the nation from Devon to Northumberland, and range from the ultra-selective Colchester Royal Grammar School to Quaker Polam Hall in Darlington, recently converted from a private school, and Brymore in Somerset, which concentrates on practical farm work alongside GCSEs. Some are single-sex, some board only in the sixth form, but all provide a setting where children from country estates and council estates can live and learn together.
Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop’s Stortford, one of the first specialist language colleges, offers only the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form. As the Good Schools Guide says: ‘Even in the gilded private sector, you’ll be hard pushed to find a school where Years 8, 9 and 10 are taught geography and history in French or German — a programme with 80 per cent participation and which really sets the pace for this truly international school.’ Indeed, says principal Richard Markham: ‘Many families who might have headed to independent schools are choosing us, for day or boarding places, because we are an outstanding school.’
Applicants at both 11+ and 16+ come from private as well as other state schools. Hockerill is ranked as the top non-selective state school by the Telegraph for its IB results — an average of 36 points in 2015, with nearly a quarter gaining 40 points or more (out of a possible 45), and 26 getting the prestigious bilingual diploma. Six went to Oxbridge in 2015 and around three-quarters generally head to Russell Group universities. It offers a ‘traditional British boarding experience’, says Markham, ‘with a close-knit community, structure, support and plenty of extracurricular opportunities’.
Parents who boarded themselves can feel at home with rolling acres and sports ranging from rugby to golf, more than 70 lunchtime and after-school clubs (from Spanish debating to jazz ensemble), an active CCF and plentiful trips both at home and abroad.
At this, as at other UK state schools, pupils must hold an EU passport or have a residential status that entitles them to a state education here. The Hockerill boarding contingent varies from year to year but is likely to include those with parents living or working abroad — plus, at this international school, a proportion of overseas pupils from mainland Europe — as well as those whose home circumstances are insecure. ‘We are totally blind to background and choose those who demonstrate the highest level of boarding need,’ says Markham. ‘It can be a very powerful tool in terms of social inclusion, and means our intake can be quite diverse.’
Melissa Grunberger’s nephew needs to board due to difficult family circumstances. Now in the sixth form at Hockerill, he has loved the boarding life. ‘The house-parents have been extremely caring and parent-like. He’s formed close relationships with other pupils and his housemaster, and he loves his friends.’
Despite some academic wobbles, he is enjoying studying for the IB, and has been on some ‘fantastic’ school trips, including a rugby tour to the US (‘tremendous fun’) and a trip to Japan (he studied Japanese to GCSE). An East End boy of mixed ethnicity, he has fitted in very well, ‘feels really comfortable’ there and has thrived in the activity-rich rural environment.
Forces children are obvious candidates for state boarding, particularly with the Continuity of Education Allowance failing to keep pace with most independent boarding fees. Gordon’s School in Surrey was founded in 1885 as a memorial to war hero Major-General Charles Gordon, originally as a boys’ home with a strong military influence. It became a school in 1943 and started admitting girls in 1990; pupils still parade annually through Whitehall following the Pipes and Drums band to a service in memory of Gordon’s life. Though it does not now prepare children for a military career, many boarding children are from forces families and CCF is high-profile.
Annabel Huxley’s son Kit was the third generation of his family to be educated at a state boarding school. His father had been in the army and various cousins worked abroad for the Foreign Office. Kit joined Gordon’s because his journalist father’s work was taking him abroad for half the year. ‘It was lovely for him to go to a place that looked established, attractive, well-run and is less than an hour from London,’ says Huxley.
About two-thirds of Gordon’s students live at home, but the school is run on boarding lines, with everyone in houses and a compulsory extended day (costing more than £6,800 a year for ‘day-boarders’, who can also stay for supper and supervised prep) featuring after-school activities ranging from art club to jazz ensemble, sailing to young engineers’ club, plus Saturday morning school.
It provided Kit — now at Sussex University — with a ‘very solid education – all the prep was monitored and it was easy for him to stay on top of his work’ says Huxley. ‘He made an exceptionally nice group of friends. They were lovely kids, very polite, funny, charming – I’m sure they will be his friends for life.’
As Gordon’s head Andrews Moss told the Good Schools Guide: ‘I’m in the best of both worlds. We have the sort of heritage and behaviour you’ll typically see in an independent, but with more grounded, authentic people around; people from all walks of life.’
With tuition coming free, what’s not to like?
Beth Noakes is senior editor at The Good Schools Guide. The Good Schools Guide: Boarding Schools was published last month.