The Best British Boarding Schools and ten tips for choosing among them

We’re preparing for our moving to Chile and while it’s been somewhat chaotic, at least we’ve escaped one headache. Right now my parent friends in the UK are undergoing the stressful and time consuming process that is called choosing a school.

Mind you, we’re only dodging the stress momentarily. As soon as we hit Chilean soil, I’ll be in full Mumzilla mode searching out the best schools for my sprogs.

Finding the right school is complicated. A ‘public’ or ‘independent’ school refers to a private, fee paying one. ‘Co-ed’ stands for co-educational and refers to a mixed sex school. Many schools have strict selection criteria, and many have even stricter criteria for the parents. Swapping countries every six months doesn’t win my family any points.

I went to a range of public schools, from a single sex boarding school in the countryside, to a Quaker school in the city. I loved them all in equal measure and while I hope my kids will appreciate school life as much as I did, I understand that my needs were different to theirs, and that a cookie cutter approach won’t cut it.

Whatever your preferences and personal situation, here are my top tips for finding the best school for your child.

1. Cost. It sounds blunt to put this at number one, but ultimately the question needs to be asked – can you afford it? Even the smaller schools can get pricey, especially when you factor in uniforms, excursions, learning materials etc. Multiply that by the number of children in your family and you might have to kiss goodbye to that annual trip to St Baths.

Also, if you put one child into a fee paying school, it can be difficult not to follow suit for their future siblings.

Take a look at the state schools around you too – sometimes they achieve better results than their fee paying peers. Some parents even hunt down (overpriced) housing in a good school catchment area.

If you do choose to go down the public school route, then it might be worth inquiring about scholarships if your child is above average in sport, music or academics. But please don’t stress your kid out. As a child I was lucky enough to receive scholarships, but it helped having parents who didn’t pile on the pressure.

2. Country v city. Many who choose boarding schools are city slickers looking to send their children to a more rural environment. Fresh air, more space to play and learn, and less distractions than in town.

One of my friends was concerned that her daughter was getting exposed to adulthood before her time and with much emotional pain, decided that a boarding school far away from the temptations of city life would be best.

Mind you, a public school education won’t shelter your child from the realities of life. One American study even found that girls who go to private schools are three times more likely to suffer from alcohol and drug problems than other young women when they grow up.

A good school, be it in the country or the city, is no substitute for positive, supportive and loving parenting.

3. Style. While my husband and I have discussed at length the merits of the schools we went to, there is only one person we really need to consider – our son.

Independent schools vary wildly, from the more relaxed and nurturing style of Forest and Steiner establishments on the one hand, to the more structured and disciplined ‘elite’ institutions on the other.

Some schools offer much more support for children with special needs. Some will go out of their way to bring out the best in your child, while for others children are profit making numbers. Some will teach through rote learning, others will lead by example and inspire future leaders.

Ask to speak to current pupils. What do they like and dislike about their school?

4. Single sex, co-ed or ‘diamond’. Apparently my mother once swore that, on principle, her children would never attend a single sex or a fee paying school. And I broke both of her rules.

There is a variety of research which points to the merits of both single and mixed sex schools. Some argue that boys perform better when working alongside girls, but that the opposite is true for girls who lose confidence among a classroom of boys. Others recommend shielding boys from higher achieving girls up until the age of 16.

The debate continues and all I can say is it’s a personal preference and depends on your child. Some schools accept both genders for lower age groups, but then morph into single sex establishments, while others do the opposite.

Meanwhile, new ‘diamond’ schools offer mixed classes in lower school years, before moving to single-sex lessons (mixed for extracurricular activities outside the classroom) between age 13 to 16, and then co-ed again for sixth form. Together, apart, back together – hence the diamond.

5. International, British or Local. A lady I met in Switzerland was weeping by the lakeside. I asked her what was wrong and she poured her heart out that her son was being bullied. Even worse, he wasn’t being bullied by his peers, but his teachers. The head reported that her son was lazy, lackadaisical and even selfish. But in fact, as a Norwegian he just didn’t understand French. While his mother had underlined several times that they’d only just arrived in Switzerland a month previous, the teachers just didn’t seem to get it. She was now debating whether to move her son to a boarding school in the UK or an international school in Switzerland.

Not all local schools are the same. But truly international schools will offer a good level of English, a more consistent style of education and a more open approach to other languages and cultures.

Beware – some schools will claim to be international schools and will ship in a temporary (and perhaps under qualified) native English speaking teacher, but the majority of the teachers will be local and the teaching style will be local too. I’ve been warned that this is a problem in Chile and judging by the grammatical errors in some of the teachers emails to me, this might indeed be the case.

6. Religion. While I attended a Quaker school at one stage, religion wasn’t at the forefront of every school activity. The ethos of pacifism and the value of silent reflection was encouraged, but not all pupils were Quakers. Equally my Church of England school taught general Christian values, but religion was not at omnipresent in our daily routine and children of different faiths attended.

Meanwhile for my husband who attended a Catholic school, it seems religion was very much a central part of everyday education.

Whether you’re looking for a school to support your family’s personal core values or seeking a more integrated approach to your child’s spirituality, then religion is another important factor to consider.

7. Academic results. It can be hard to compare like for like as so many variables come into play, but the Independent School Council’s annual league tables compare academic results.

As I’ve mentioned before, I personally rate values and an inquisitive mind over rote learning, but nevertheless league tables can offer a general idea of the school’s academic performance.

High achieving schools employ high selection criteria. Having another child already at the school isn’t always enough. Entrance and scholarship exams vary from school to school, but even in my day these were two day long intensive interview processes with maths, english, verbal reasoning and psychological tests, as well as an ‘informal chat’ with the headmaster. (In reality the headmaster gets the final say, so the chat is a final chance for kids to prove themselves and is anything but casual).

The whole process can be very stressful for children and parents need to be careful not to transfer their anxiety onto their child.

Schools may also want to see to what extent the parents will be contributing towards everyday life in the school. While boarding schools will understand that parents can’t travel thousands of miles to pop by for tea on Sunday, they will no doubt expect some contribution, perhaps housing a foreign exchange student during the holidays for example.

They’ll also want to see parents who care about their children’s education and support their learning at home. Parents, whether you realise it or not, you’re also being tested.

8. Age. I attended a fee paying school for all of my life, but in all honestly I think my first years of private schooling were a waste of money. There were good local primary schools, but my parents chose to sacrifice their holidays for my text books. I’m extremely grateful for their efforts, but I wonder if private schooling for under tens is really worth it?

As I’ve mentioned before, children might not be ready to board away from home until a later age. Homesickness is a normal stage when growing up, but a loss in confidence or happiness is not.

Obviously it depends on the personal circumstances and for children with special needs then it can be a clearer choice to make.

While it may be hard to switch schools later on, it can be even harder to switch systems. Going from a small private school in the country to a larger state city school can be quite a culture shock.

9. Sports, drama, music and more. Is your child a budding Einstein or do they look to David Beckham, Laurence Olivier or Mozart for their role model? What does the school offer after lesson time? What facilities are available?

If your child already has an extra curricular passion, look to a school that will not just accommodate it, but actively support it. Whether its judo, ballet or a more unusual pursuit, seek out a school that will go the extra mile for your child.

10. Day / weekly / termly. I tried weekly boarding when I was ten years and I lasted less than ten days. Within hours I was howling for my parents to take me back home. In truth, it wasn’t that I was missing my parents, rather I was missing out. The majority of pupils attended on a daily basis and I felt very, very lonely when my buddies left for home.

Then a few years later at another school the opposite happened – as a day pupil I returned home while my friends ran off to plot midnight feasts, treasure hunts and after hours ghost stories. So I started boarding again.

Undoubtedly my age had a lot to do with it – at ten I just wasn’t ready to sleep away from my parents.

If you live withing commuting distance it’s also worth asking about the ratio of boarders to day pupils and also if day boarding is common. Day boarding, i.e. staying on for after school homework prep and games can as be great for the children as for their working parents.

I appreciate that for military families, a daily commute from Afghanistan is not an option however. Every child and every circumstance differs though and ultimately it’s a parent’s choice.

Boarding, be it daily, weekly or termly is no longer about cold showers and lumpy porridge for breakfast. It can offer a wonderful lifelong learning experience. I’m still in touch with friends from my school and next year I hope to join a twenty (yikes!) year reunion. At first I was anxious about my child starting school. Now I’m rather jealous.



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