Choosing state boarding

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by Jonathan Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of the Sapentia Education Trust (SET) and Executive Principal of Wymondham College
Wymondham-College

State boarding schools are often described as ‘education’s best kept secret’. Certainly I meet many prospective parents who have found the sector almost by chance and who once introduced are impressed by the range of facilities, types of school and examination results across our schools. State boarding is available to all EU-qualified pupils and the education is provided free of charge, so parents only pay for the boarding element.

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State boarding schools vary considerably by size and location but they all share a strong commitment to the value of boarding and provide excellent facilities and systems of care. The sector consists of large mixed non-selective schools, free schools, grammar schools and schools that offer mixed or single-sex education. Although most offer secondary places, primary boarding is available too and this will be further supported by the opening of a new primary boarding free school in Norfolk in 2019. All together around 5,000 pupils enjoy boarding in a diverse, varied and hugely successful range of schools.

Wymondham College has around 650 boarders and offers a strong academic curriculum combined with excellent pastoral care. We were judged to be ‘outstanding’ in every area in our latest Ofsted inspections for education and boarding. Typically we run more than 65 weekly extra-curricular activities, a wide range of international trips and visits and have a strong commitment to sport, music, drama, CCF and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. We offer 27 different A-level courses but other state boarding schools provide different pathways, for example the IB is available in some schools and others offer an excellent range of vocational courses.

Academic excellence

I firmly believe boarding adds significant value to young people, developing their independence, resilience and self-esteem. In 2016 three state boarding schools were in the top 20 non-selective state schools at GCSE and state boarding schools topped the league tables in three regions of the country. University entrance rates are very high, with Russell Group and Oxbridge entry well above national averages. At Wymondham College we usually secure ten Oxbridge places each year with more than 50 per cent going on to Russell Group universities. And it’s not just academic success – several England rugby players attended state boarding schools. 

State boarding schools may offer single-sex boarding or mixed boarding. Some have boarding houses covering the entire school age while others divide into key stages or run a separate sixth-form boarding house. They all offer strong systems of pastoral support and care, ensuring pupils are well known by staff and their individual needs are catered for. Pupil-voice activities are strongly promoted and pupils are given opportunities to lead and contribute to their schools. Boarding houses are homely with soft furnishings often the norm and I have yet to have a poor meal in ten years of working in the sector!

Day-to-day life follows a typical boarding school pattern. At Wymondham College breakfast starts from 7.15 am, lessons from 8.30 am, the school day ends at 3.45 pm and our extra-curricular programme starts at 4 pm. Prep is completed in the evenings (with boarding staff, more often than not teachers, on hand to support) and we offer Saturday morning school, with a full range of sporting fixtures on Saturday afternoons.

Parents and students choose state boarding for many reasons and our communities are grounded and diverse. Some prefer the state boarding offer, others are attracted by high standards and value for money, others are attracted to the distinctiveness of individual schools. Across the sector there are very high satisfaction rates from parents and pupils.

State boarding schools are subject to regular Ofsted inspections, including an Ofsted boarding inspection every three years. Reports are available online but we recommend a personal visit because it can be difficult to convey the ethos of a school through an inspection report. I always encourage parents to visit several schools before choosing, ensuring the best match for their child.

State boarding schools are proud of what we deliver. As one journalist commented on a visit to the College ‘this feels like any leading independent school’. We, like colleagues in the independent sector, are simply committed to high quality boarding.

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