How to Pick a UK Boarding School

17 August, 2014

Image shows Wellington School.The United Kingdom has long been a country noted for the academic excellence of its boarding schools and their famously quirky traditions, but with around 500 boarding schools in the UK, how do you go about choosing which one is best for your child?

There are many factors you might wish to consider when picking the ideal boarding school for your child – above all, of course, where you think they would be happiest. That’s best judged by taking plenty of time over your decision and making sure to visit any schools you’re seriously considering. In this article, we take you through some of the other main factors and give you some inspiration in the form of a few names to get you started on your research.

General considerations

There are quite a few things to think about when picking a boarding school, and we’re going to start by discuss them in more detail. It’s a good idea to let your child be involved in the process of choosing, so that they feel they have some control over the situation and so that they end up going somewhere they feel they’d be happy.

Educational credentials

You’ll want to check out the school’s academic credentials to ensure that the teaching your child will receive is top notch. League tables should give you an indication of the proportion of pupils receiving top grades, which can form one of your points of comparison. Academic facilities will also be of interest, as will aspects such as the range of subjects and qualifications offered, class sizes, and so on.

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Standard of living and pastoral care

Image shows a teapot with a cup of tea.

There will always be someone on hand with tea and sympathy.

You will want to send your child to boarding school knowing that they will be exceptionally well looked after, so the standard of pastoral care and living quarters will be a primary concern. For an assurance of quality, you can look out for accreditation such as membership of industry bodies that provide regular inspections. These include the Boarding Schools Association and the Independent Schools Council, which monitor numerous aspects of boarding schools, including academic standards, behaviour of pupils, quality of the school buildings, activities offered, and many others.

Single-sex or co-educational

Some boarding schools cater for boys only and some for girls only, while others are co-educational (or mixed sex). The environments offered by single-sex versus co-educational schools are very different, so you’ll need to think carefully about which you feel would be better suited to your child. There are arguments on both sides; some feel that single-sex schools minimise distraction, while others believe that co-educational schools provide better preparation for life at university and beyond.

Ratio of boarders to day school

Make sure that there are enough boarders that the school will still be busy in the evenings and at weekends. If it’s mostly day pupils or those who board during the week and go home at weekends, it might be quiet and a bit lonely at the weekend, with fewer activities going on to keep your child occupied.

Proportion of international pupils

Image shows a row of international flags.

Increasing numbers of UK boarding school students come from overseas.

One of the reasons for sending your child to a boarding school in the UK may be that it will help their English tremendously. If that’s the case, ensure that there is a good mix of nationalities at the school so that English will be the language of choice outside the classroom as well as in it. Most boarding schools should be able to offer additional English tuition for overseas pupils who would benefit from it, so this is something to ask about if you feel your child’s English could be improved.

Location

Some boarding schools are located out in the countryside; others in the middle of cities. Which would you rather your child went to, and which would they rather? Also, think about transport links, particularly if you’re coming from overseas. You’ll need to make the trip numerous times to drop off and collect your child at the beginning and end of each term, so you might want to consider picking somewhere that’s relatively accessible from an airport. If you have any family living in the UK, you might also think about choosing a school near them, so that your child has family nearby to turn to if they need to.

Values and traditions

Image shows boys in Harrow school uniform.

The Harrow school uniform has remained unchanged for a very long time.

Boarding schools in the UK – particularly the most famous ones – have their own distinct values to which pupils are expected to subscribe, and plenty of interesting and often unusual traditions that pupils are expected to keep alive. Some are very old-fashioned and conservative; others are more forward-thinking and modern. Naturally, you’ll want to make sure you agree with the school’s values before sending your child there. Boarding school websites will usually have a statement or letter from the Headmaster that will summarise these values and the school’s ethos. You should be able to tell a lot about the school from this, and it can be one of the factors you use to help you decide whether or not it’s a school that’s worth visiting.

Extra-curricular activities

You’ll want to know what activities are available for your child to take part in when they’re not studying. Most boarding schools have superb facilities and extra-curricular activities, and your child is unlikely ever to be bored while they’re at boarding school. Some are noted for being particularly strong on certain things, such as music or sports. Most will run activities such as music groups, debating societies, sports teams, drama productions and so on. Most also offer schemes designed to help pupils enhance their CVs and develop social skills, such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which involves pupils working towards a series of challenges such as volunteering in the community, outdoor pursuits and expeditions, and taking part in sport.

Britain’s best boarding schools

Let’s now have a look at some specific schools that are all well-respected options for you to consider. The names below should give you a starting point when researching boarding schools, though there are many more excellent boarding schools that could have also been mentioned.

Best for prestige and connections

Image shows an 18th century painting of Eton.

Eton was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI.

When it comes to prestige, you can’t get more prestigious than Eton College in Windsor.

It’s where Princes William and Harry went, not to mention numerous Prime Ministers, actors and other important folk. It’s not alone in being a famous name, though. If it’s prestige you’re after, you’d be equally well served by Harrow School, Westminster School, Charterhouse and Winchester College, which are all very famous, as are Rugby and Shrewsbury Schools. These all belong to the prestigious group of so-called ‘public schools’ – the oldest, most exclusive fee-paying boarding schools in the country. If your child goes to any of these, they will be following in the footsteps of countless celebrated alumni and they’ll be among the political and business leaders of tomorrow. Incidentally, Eton College sends a third of its pupils to Oxford and Cambridge Universities each year, so if you want a school with good connections, it takes some beating.

Best for exam results

League tables only tell part of the story, but they’re nevertheless worth looking at to see which boarding schools are consistently ranked highest on academic merit. Looking at the league tables on Best-Schools.co.uk, the boarding schools with the highest proportion of A and A* grades are:

  • Girls only – Wycombe Abbey School
  • Boys only – Winchester College
  • Co-educational – Cardiff Sixth Form College

Westminster School and St Paul’s School, both in London, are the second and third highest-ranked boys-only boarding schools, with Eton College in fourth place. For girls, St Swithun’s School in Winchester and St Mary’s School in Ascot occupy second and third place, while for co-educational it’s Westminster School (the Sixth Form is co-educational, unlike the rest of the school, hence why it appears on the all-boys list too) and Queen Ethelburga’s College in York.

Best for location

Image shows a capsule of the London Eye with the city in the background.

Proximity to London will be an advantage for some, but a disadvantage for others.

Location is a subjective factor, so which you consider to be the best will depend on your own preferences. If you’re looking for a city-based boarding school then Westminster, Harrow and St Paul’s could be good choices; all three are in London, and therefore easy to access from overseas. If you’re more in favour of a countryside boarding school, Charterhouse has a leafy setting in Godalming, Surrey, while Dauntsey’s in Devizes, Wiltshire, is set on its own 150 acre country estate. Stowe School in Buckinghamshire is a converted stately home set in another beautiful country estate, giving it a truly grand, Downton Abbey-like aura.

Best for extra-curricular activities

The options on offer really depend on your child’s particular interest, so it’s difficult to name one school that’s best for extra-curricular activities. Bromsgrove School, for instance, is just one boarding school of many with an excellent reputation for sports. Bryanston School in Dorset offers an outstanding range of over a hundred different extra-curricular activities, some of the more unusual of which include archaeology, a choir, pottery, screenwriting, breadmaking and even guitar making. Queen Ethelburga’s School for Girls and Stonar School are two boarding schools that would suit horse-mad girls down to the ground, as they both have stables and provide extensive opportunities for riding and looking after horses alongside the usual academic studies.

Best for traditions

Image shows Winchester School.

Winchester is known for its traditions.

Eton College is famous for its traditions, particularly its legendary ‘Wall Game’ and its annual Fourth of June celebrations (a celebration of the birthday of King George III, a big benefactor in the school’s past). It’s not the only British boarding school with a rich set of interesting traditions, though. Winchester College has some excellent ones, such as ‘Illumina’, a pre-Christmas celebration involving lots of candles lighting up part of the school at night, and ‘Morning Hills’, a twice-yearly event in which the entire school gets up at dawn and climbs to the top of a nearby hill. At Westminster, the most unusual tradition is called ‘The Greaze’. You can find out more about this and other quaint English boarding school traditions in our previous article on this subject, which should help you decide which you most like the sound of.

What next?

Send off for prospectuses, scan school websites and ask around on internet forums to get as much of an idea as you can about each of the boarding schools you’re considering. This should allow you to whittle down a shortlist of possible schools. Once you’ve done this, your next step should be to visit them all, or as many of them as you can. This will take up quite a lot of time, but it’s worth it because the only way you’ll get a real idea of what the school is like is by visiting. You can’t pick up on a school’s atmosphere by looking at brochures and websites. It’s a good idea to take your child with you too, so that you can rule out any schools they really don’t want to go to. Arrange to talk to the headmaster or other senior staff; they should be happy to take you on a tour of the school and answer any questions you or your child may have.

Image shows Clifton school.

Top boarding schools such as Clifton are highly competitive.

It’s also worth thinking about the entrance requirements for each of the schools you look at. The best boarding schools are likely to have rigorous entry procedures, including interviews and entrance exams, and you’ll need to be prepared for these. You may find it useful to read our guide on How to Get into the Best Boarding Schools in Britain, which takes you through the admissions process in more detail.

The opportunities offered by boarding schools in the UK are second to none, but with so many to choose from, it’s going to take a little while to find the perfect one for your child. They may seem very similar when you first start your research and you have only their websites and other literature to go on, so it’s definitely worth making some appointments to visit in person with your child to get a feel for the atmosphere and surroundings. Allow around a year and a half to find a suitable school, as this should give you enough time to do your research properly and ensure you make the right decision for your child’s future.






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Image credits: banner; tea; flags; Harrow; Eton; London; Winchester; Clifton.

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