Does the mention of British boarding schools conjure up images of Hogwarts, preppy uniforms, and straitlaced professors with perpetual scowls in black capes?
It is safe to say that no dark wizardry can be found lurking in real-life boarding schools, but a look at some of the most prestigious schools in Britain would certainly give Hogwarts a run for its money.
A bird’s-eye view of Rossall School, a 160-acre estate at the coast of Rossall Beach
Ushering tradition into modernity: A More Global Approach to Education
The British boarding school system is synonymous with prestige and academic par excellence, following unparalleled educational standards that have been tried, tested and improved for centuries. Historically, however, boarding schools were strictly masculine domains of social elitism, housing children of the aristocracy that would become leaders of the British Empire. Household names like Eton College and Harrow School, which boast figures such as Winston Churchill, Prince William, and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as their alumnae, are two examples of elite all-boys institutions that maintain this single-gender tradition.
Thankfully, U.K. boarding schools in the 21st century are as colourful as their students. Co-educational boarding schools can be found all across Britain, welcoming students of all genders, faiths, cultures and nationalities. With such a varied student population, how does an education system inherited from a colonial past rooted in exclusivity adapts itself into modern pedagogy to account for the sensibilities of a diverse student population, without compromising its core educational ethos?
The solution lies in offering a more globalized curriculum for a more worldly and well-rounded educational experience. In most schools, students are exposed to the greater world as young as Year Four during their preparatory years. The Sussex-based Brighton College, ranked as the leading co-educational school in England by The Sunday Times in 2017, makes Mandarin a compulsory subject for all pupils in prep school to equip them with exceptional linguistic skills and cultural awareness about a country that has been noted as an emergent global superpower. This language-learning continues all the way to their upper years to ensure a comprehensive experience in language acquisition, since students also learn about Chinese societal norms and culture. Subjects such as History and Geography also span the entire globe to promote an international outlook on the understanding of global systems beyond the British Isles. In fact, field trips and summer abroad programs for hands-on immersion are regular fare in the curriculum. Students will have the opportunity to travel the world and experience the perks of learning about different cultures firsthand.
The Sixth Form is arguably the most crucial time for students, since academic performance in the last years of school will determine their future upon graduation. Luckily, boarders are armed with world-class teaching staffs and exceptional standards for excellence to ensure placements in top universities in the U.K. and all over the world. In 2017 alone, independent schools outperform national public schools by almost double the national average, with 46.7% of students receiving either an A* or an A compared to the national average of 26.4%. In that same year, 94% of students were able to secure admission into their first university choice, with five percent entering either Oxford or Cambridge. Independent schools also consistently maintain 100% passing rate for A-level. Many British boarding schools now also offer International Baccalaureate alongside A-Level, allowing students the choice to which pathway suits them best to prepare for university.
A more personalized approach to learning with world-class teachers who are passionate about their vocation ensures that students receive powerful tools to enhance their learning capacity. Class sizes are markedly smaller than public schools, so that individual educational needs are not undermined in a classroom with a high number of students.
Rossall School, a lavish 160-acre campus on the Lancashire coastline that has been operating since 1844, is one such school where emphasis lies on individual development. Classes on this historic school remain at 1:11 teacher-to-pupil ratio, maintaining a legacy of producing students who achieve their full potential through rigorous academic training and character-building. Dubbed ‘The Eton of the North’, the atmosphere at Rossall is challenging yet friendly - students enrol with a goal to gain entry into prestigious universities, but soon find learning to be a holistic experience beyond the classroom. Nurtured by a vibrant culture that stimulates intellectual growth, and a caring community that prioritizes emotional wellness, students graduate with flying colours and confidence to forge their own paths for the future.
The British boarding school system acknowledges that education is not one-size-fits-all. Therefore, academic support is given according to a student’s specific learning needs. Small and one-on-one mentoring are available on deck for boarders seeking extra guidance outside of their classrooms. These additional lessons are given by specialist teachers, and are arranged at times that do not interfere with regular classes. D’Overbroeck’s School in Oxford, known for eschewing stiff hierarchies for a more laid-back communal experience, emphasizes building personal relationships as its core principle. Teachers and students are on first name terms, leading to a high level of mutual respect and forming a strong mentorship example that students can model from. In addition, individual emphasis on a student fosters independent thought and self-sufficiency. Not only do boarders gain academic enrichment, they also receive added value in learning time management, which is a crucial trait to develop at the cusp of adulthood as they learn how to juggle increasing responsibilities.
With stellar academic performances to boot, the secret behind the continuous success story of U.K. boarding school lies in top-notch pastoral care that looks into all aspects of the students’ well-being. Sending children to boarding schools might provoke initial anxiety on whether a child has adequate support to cope with living independently, but a glimpse into the range of care provided for boarders would quell any concerns from even the most protective of parents.
Boarding schools prioritize mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness in a student’s development - a philosophy reflected in the amount of around-the-clock boarding support services offered. Aside from having trained medical experts to look into each student’s health, housemasters/housemistress and tutors also share responsibility in cooperating together to create a homely space for students away from home. For international students, adjusting to a new living environment is doubly challenging when separated from the familiar comforts of one’s own culture. It is important for international students to find a sense of belonging to meet their need for acceptance in order to avoid feeling alienated from the school’s community.
Fortunately, boarding schools have a wealth of experience in welcoming foreign students of diverse faiths and cultural backgrounds. A large number of boarding schools employ a ‘buddy system’ for newcomers, pairing new students with existing ones who have been trained to lend a listening ear to their fellow peers. Guardians and host families work closely with schools and play an active role in welcoming international students, to the extent of even receiving feedback about their progress on behalf of parents. The school chaplaincy services are also open to everyone, and chapels are often dedicated as a place of worship for all students, irrespective of faith.
A Day in the Life of a Boarder
So what does a typical day look like for a boarder? If you think it is all work and no play, think again. Boarding school students have access to state-of the-art facilities such as Olympic-sized swimming pools, performance theatres, tennis lawns, equestrian centres, and even golf academies!
Bryanston School boasts 25 stables and a 35m x 75m outdoor arena at its Equestrian Centre. Students can also apply for apprenticeships as grooms..
Boarders usually wake up around 7 a.m. to get ready for their lessons. Breakfast is served at a communal dining hall, where students enjoy a variety of buffet to kick-start their day. This is also a great opportunity for students to socialize and mingle with other boarders over sumptuous food fit for royalty.
Lessons usually start around 9 a.m., with class duration varying from 35 to 50 minutes in different schools. Each class is focused, well-paced and filled with colourful lectures from highly-qualified teachers. ‘Inspirational learning’ is a term often associated with British boarding schools, where educators employ creative pedagogy to impart meaningful lessons regardless of the subject matter. Through inspirational teaching, boarders develop internal motivation to do well in school absent of external pressure. Students begin to understand that the best motivation one can get comes from within, and will carry that spirit forward all the way to their university years.
After a few periods with a short break in between, students will go for lunch at the dining hall once again. This is followed by three or four more afternoon lessons until about 5.00 p.m. Once classes are over, students are free to partake in a variety of extracurricular activities ranging from sports to performing arts. They usually take place after students have had some time to change and unwind from their lessons.
It is not a stretch to mention that most schools offer over 100 activities to choose from, with instructions from national-level coaches and even visiting international stars. Bryanston School, a Blandford-based co-educational institution, implements a system called Performance Sports Programme which provides a structured framework and specific programme for top sports students in five strands: health and well-being, academics, athleticism, skill, and psychology. Within this framework, students are assessed holistically, besides securing milestones in pursuits outside of the classroom. Students are encouraged to explore new hobbies, and bond with other like-minded students over their shared interests.
Rite of passage: Why British boarding schools are a good investment
Undeniably, the British boarding school system makes a strong case against naysayers who think that living away from home with curfews means curtailing individual freedom. If anything, boarding schools are the perfect stepping stones for a lifelong journey in establishing independence in every corner of a student’s life. Boarders learn life skills such as making independent decisions, building their own social network, managing daily tasks and learning to step out of their comfort zones to always push beyond their capabilities. Access to wide-ranging activities also enables students to express their identities beyond academia, creating a well-rounded individual who is prepared to accept life’s challenges head-on when they graduate from school. Think of sending children to boarding schools as planting a seed with potential for limitless growth. With careful nurturing in a conducive learning environment, the mind of a boarder will blossom and expand to its fullest potential, guaranteeing a promising path ahead in life.