What about boarding schools?

Posted: 19th April 2023

by Barnaby Lenon, Headmaster of Harrow School, 1999–2011, and chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC)

Boarding schools continue to be popular in the twenty-first century, offering exceptional education and extra-curricular activities with round-the-clock pastoral care.

What about boarding schools…

The 2021 ISC Census showed that an estimated 65,345 pupils board at ISC schools. Overall, 458 schools, representing 33per cent of all ISC schools, have some boarding pupils.

Parents are able to choose between different types of boarding to suit their child. Although full boarding remains most popular overall, the pattern appears to be changing with weekly and flexi boarding becoming more popular. In 2016, 15.7 per cent of boarders were weekly or flexi boarders. In 2021 the figure was 19.5 per cent. Many working parents value the flexibility of these boarding options.

There are variations between different age groups. For the sector as a whole, 12 per cent of pupils at ISC schools board. At sixth form this proportion more than doubles to one in three of all pupils. For junior pupils this proportion is significantly lower, with only 2 per cent of pupils boarding.
Although the overall number of non-British pupils with parents living overseas has understandably declined due to the pandemic, the number of Hong Kong pupils has increased by 6.6% to 5.466.

The parents of these pupils choose British schools because they are keen for their children to master the English language, they understand the significance of extra-curricular activities as part of a wide education, and they know attending a British school may be the best way to gain admission to a British university.
Some boarding and day schools have set up franchise schools abroad. While I was headmaster at Harrow we built schools in Thailand, Beijing and Hong Kong. These schools pay a fee to the British school which helps to keep down the fees paid by parents and can be used to fund transformational bursaries at the school. In return, the British school provides advice and monitors the franchise school in a way which guarantees standards.
In 2021, average fee increases were 1.7 per cent. A total of 179,768 pupils now receive help with their fees, representing 35 percent of all pupils. The value of this help totals over £1.1 billion, an increase of 4.3 per cent on the previous year.

Widening access

This reflects the long-term aim of our schools to increase bursary provision and widen access. Over the last 15 years, there has been a consistent trend of schools providing increasing amounts of fee assistance to pupils.

More than 40,000 pupils receive means-tested bursaries, valued at £432 million in 2021. The average bursary is worth £10,237 per pupil per year.

Advantages of boarding 

Boarding schools have many advantages:

  • They are able to offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities to a high proportion of pupils because more time is spent by pupils on the school grounds. They also tend to attract staff who want to be involved in sport, music or drama at a high level.
  • Boarding schools take pupils from all over the country and all over the world. This is a valuable educational experience in itself: the opportunity to know people from many walks of life and from many different cultures.
  • And of course, boarders do not have to travel to school, something which can be challenging in some parts of the country.

Things to consider

The boarding environment is positive and fun, but remember:

  • Boarding houses can be noisy places full of other children!
  • Being away from home will be a new experience for children and their parents.
  • Boarding requires substantial investment. However, overall more than a third of ISC school pupils receive help with their fees.

Choosing to board is a personal decision for parents to make with their child – and with support and advice from their chosen school. Every school is different and details of individual schools can be found on their websites, or through the Independent Schools Council (ISC) website. 

What is the ISC?

The ISC is a membership organisation that brings together seven education associations and works on behalf of more than 1,300 independent fee-charging schools in the United Kingdom, which educate more than 500,000 children every year.

The ISC has three main functions, covering policy and public affairs, media and communications, and research and data. The aim of the ISC is to be a service organisation, promoting and protecting the independent education sector. 

Importantly for our members, the ISC provides a central base in London where all types of independent schools (prep schools, mixed and single-sex, academically selective and non-selective, day and boarding) can come together to discuss issues of common interest. Parents can find information about all ISC schools at www.isc.co.uk

About the author

Barnaby Lenon, Headmaster of Harrow School, 1999–2011, and chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC)

Barnaby Lenon was brought up on a council estate in south London. He was educated at Eltham College and Oxford University and he won the Cambridge University prize for Education. He taught at Eton for 12 years, was Deputy Head of Highgate School, Head of Trinity School Croydon and Head of Harrow (12 years). He has been a governor of 22 schools and is a trustee of the nine independent and state schools in the King Edward’s Birmingham Foundation. He is chairman of governors and joint founder of the London Academy of Excellence, a state school which opened in 2012 in Newham, east London. He is Professor of Education at the University of Buckingham, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, a trustee of the Yellow Submarine charity and a consultant to the Robertson Foundation, which sponsors schools in New York and South Africa (among other things). He is a member of the Ofqual Standards Advisory Group. He has published several books including Much Promise: successful schools in England and Other People’s Children: what happens to the academically least successful 50%?