The joys of boarding


by Mary Breen, Headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot, 1999–2019

In Charles Dickens’ Dotheby’s Hall, a boarding school for boys, the advert in the London papers says ‘no extras and no vacations’.How times have changed!The days of waving a child off in September and reacquainting with them the following July have long since gone – in truth they probably never existed.


Today’s boarding schools are modern, progressive, safe, caring, stimulating and friendly places – for pupils and their parents. And the extras are endless!

I have worked in boarding schools for almost my whole career and I consider the education we provide to be very enriching and hugely rewarding for pupils, parents and staff. 

Adventure, purpose and fun

Pupils in boarding schools learn to be independent from a very early age – they might be discussing with their tutor whether to do karate or fencing as their extra activity on Monday evening, but their choice will not depend on whether Mum or Dad can drive them there and stay with them. All their extras are on-site – safe, overseen by caring staff, and done with lots of friends. Time pupils might have spent commuting to a day school is spent in the fresh air, doing sport, drama, learning difficult maths with an older pupil helping them, or rehearsing for inter-house dance, music, chess, cooking, public speaking, debating.During the evenings pupils get on with their study, see teachers for extra help, practise music, relax at supper with their friends and then prepare themselves for sleep. One of the things you want in a boarding school is for the pupils to be tired at the end of the day. Then they are not bored and they sleep well having filled their time with adventure, with purpose, with learning and with fun.

“Pupils in boarding schools learn to be independent from a very early age.”

For pupils, boarding gives time, space, friends, extensive opportunities, independence and a thirst for adventure. It means sharing their space, getting on with all, learning to live together, queuing for a shower, and sharing a room with someone they didn’t know until the start of term. All these things build empathy, courage, character and respect for others.

Partnership with parents

For parents, boarding gives parents a partnership with the school in the upbringing of their child. Parents are so involved now with the life of their child at boarding school and all staff get to know the parents really well over their child’s time at school. There is no commuting or car park drop off – parents are welcome into our schools at any time for services, sport, plays, concerts, lectures. For parents, we do all the hard stuff – ‘wear your uniform correctly, do your study, practise your violin, eat your greens!’.

And parents have all the lovely, relaxing time at exeats and holidays with their children. Many boarding parents will tell you they feel they have much better relationships with their teenage daughters and sons precisely because – for some of the time – their children are with other teenagers being cared for by professionals whose life’s work is to support young people through adolescence with all its ups and downs.

Alumni from many boarding schools go on to encourage their children to consider boarding school. It must have worked! So forget the old days of Dotheby’s Hall and expressions such as ‘sending my child away’. Boarding schools are all about pupils thriving and parents becoming members of a close community where they can share the joy and adventure of raising their child.

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