How To Choose The Right School: Boarding Or Day?

How To Choose The Right School: Boarding Or Day?

For parents who go down the independent school path, the idea of sending a child to boarding school can be pretty alien – for others, it’s completely natural. Whichever you choose, both have pros and cons and your child may be more likely to thrive in one versus another. To help navigate the decision-making process, we went to three education experts for their words of wisdom…

Round-The-Clock Education 

“One of the biggest advantages of a boarding school is the fact that learning never stops,” says Jo Heywood, director at education consultancy Heywood de Ferrer Associates. “Children are kept busy, both inside and outside of the classroom, there’s always someone to talk to, and homework is done with professionals.” Most boarding schools are very strict about prep, Jo says, so you can be confident your child is getting work done in a distraction-free environment, often in designated time slots. “A boarding school’s teaching timetable may not differ too greatly from that of a day school but naturally, as the pupils live on site, the school day continues into the evening, and there’s a prescriptive plan of set times for sport, meals, prep, socialising and bedtime,” adds Grace Moody-Stuart, director of The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants. “Boarding life can enrich the school experience, suiting a child who likes to keep busy and take advantage of opportunities.”

Extensive Extra-Curricular Activities

The variety of extra-curricular activities on offer at boarding schools will likely be superior to that at a day school. Boarding schools have a responsibility to keep children busy in their downtime and pupils are encouraged to attend at least one extra-curricular club, Jo says. “That said, any independent school – day or boarding – will offer an impressive roster of activities, the difference is that in a day school they will run at lunchtime and possibly after school. This means your child will get home later in the evening and you may need to play taxi again.” When it comes to sport, many matches are now held on the weekends, meaning parents can attend if you work during the week.

An In-Built Social Life

“The friends children make at boarding school can be from far-flung regions of the both the UK and the world,” says Jo. “This makes for great holidays and networking in the later years.” Plus, as Grace adds, having to constantly be around people will build social skills. “Children at boarding school don’t have their parents to organise their social life for them, and so may need to develop certain skills to get by. Plenty of adults who went to boarding school reflect that what it really taught them was how to get along with people. You quickly learn at boarding school that when you’re spending 15 hours a day with the same people, life is easier if you’re not rubbing each other up the wrong way.”

Improved Family Relationships

While some people assume boarding school will lead to detached family relationships, it can be quite the opposite, says Jo. “Many parents find their relationship with their child improves when they are at boarding school, particularly during the tricky teenage years. Plus, when children come home for exeats and holidays, they will have completed their work, so are yours to have fun with.”

It Fosters Independence & Confidence

Going to boarding school cultivates self-reliance, getting your child used to the idea of being away from home. Liz Hewer, head of St George’s Ascot, says very few children don’t become confident boarders. “Nearly all children can be suited to boarding. Sometimes, the children who everyone imagines will take to it like a duck to water has wobbles, and the child that people think will find the transition hard, never looks back. Every child has their own journey, but with consistent support, pretty much every child will flourish and gain confidence and independence at boarding school.”

The Fees

“There’s no denying it – boarding school is expensive,” stresses Jo. “Aside from the school fees themselves, you’ll need to factor in extras like music lessons, school trips and uniform. Fees have been increasing year-on-year at an eye-watering rate. It might be worthwhile considering your budget to send your child to a boarding or day school for a couple of years.” It could also be worth exploring a state boarding school, says Grace. “There are around 45 of these in the UK. Some run similarly to traditional private boarding schools, including having a selective admissions process, but there are noticeable differences, not least in their size and facilities. All state boarding schools charge fees for the boarding side of school life, and these can range from £12,000 to £16,000. These schools are not like your local comprehensive or academy, but it would also be wrong to imagine a state boarding school is a taxpayer-funded Eton or Harrow.  There are some excellent state boarding schools including Cranbrook in Kent, Steyning in Sussex and Wymondham College in Norfolk.”

You Don’t Get To See Your Children Every Day

There’s no escaping the fact that when you send your child to boarding school, you’re handing over a significant part of their upbringing to someone else. They will likely go to someone else with their problems, which may make you feel redundant. 

Improved Organisational Skills

It’s true that children who come from a boarding school background have had to learn from an earlier stage how to manage themselves and their belongings, says Jo, but that’s not to say day pupils lack this opportunity. “Children become adept at standing on their own two feet and the rough and tumble of boarding school life. But that isn’t to say these things can’t be learnt at a day school. Some may argue that on the organisation front, children in day schools actually need to be more organised than their boarding counterparts – leaving home at the beginning of the day, the child must ensure they have everything they need for the day as there’s no opportunity to just pop back to your dorm to pick up what you’ve forgotten.”

More Control Over Your Child’s Life

“Depending on the relationship you have with your child, you may get a greater oversight of the pressures of school life that children face when you see them each evening,” says Jo. “You may also become a positive sounding board for your child.”

You’ll Provide A Constant Taxi Service

“Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a nanny or au pair, be prepared to spend a lot of time in the car,” says Jo. “Be cognisant of travel time. If your chosen day school is 45 minutes away, this amounts to seven-and-a-half hours of travel per week, which is equivalent to a whole day in school. This may be enough to change to your mind, or to push you to think about going down the weekly boarding route.” Jo also says it’s worth choosing a day school that offers breakfast and after-school pick-up clubs, especially if you are a working mum. “There’s nothing worse than dealing with the stress and guilt of a pick-up when you are running late.”

You’ll Need To Manage Logistics

“If you do send your children to day school, it helps to be a master in spreadsheets,” says Jo. “Be prepared to juggle homework, music practice and general logistics. You may also need to respond to last-minute emails from school regarding equipment, or even what uniform to wear the next day. Also, with children at home during the week, be prepared for more washing (at boarding school, this is taken care of), and if you have boys, you may find your food bill increases dramatically.”

If you’re still weighing up your options, here’s what the experts have to say…

Take Advantage Of Boarding Facilities As A Day Pupil

“A school that successful combines boarding and day is a great environment in which to go to school,” says Liz. “Around 60% of our girls are day pupils, and 40% are boarders. The opportunities available to day girls in a school with a strong boarding ethos are of such great benefit – developing independence, confidence and character. Day girls, and their busy parents, have all the benefits of an extended day at St George’s – from Monday to Thursday, the girls do clubs after lessons and complete their prep at school before the day girls leave, at which point the boarders head to the dining room for supper.” If you are thinking about going down this route, Jo recommends checking the ratio of day pupils to boarders. “If there is a high percentage of boarders, it can be trickier for day pupils to integrate, and they may feel left out. If you do send your child to a boarding school as a day pupil, be prepared to send them there as a boarder. Chances are that after a few years they will ultimately want to board.”

…Or Consider A Flexi Approach

“Boarding schools today are fairly unrecognisable from those a few decades ago,” says Grace. “Exclusively full boarding schools do still exist, meaning a child may go for a few weeks without seeing their parents, but they are increasingly unusual, and the majority of boarding schools now offer a flexible approach.” St George’s Ascot is just one example, offering full boarding as well as the option to board for four, five or six nights a week, or occasional boarding, which could be a few nights per term. “Lots of our pupils start boarding one or two nights per week and then increase as they get older,” says Liz. “We also have quite a few girls who start boarding in the Sixth Form, having previously been day girls. We are certainly seeing this as a popular move as we emerge from the pandemic, too. I live on site, so couldn’t be any nearer to the school, and my daughter recently started boarding two nights a week. For her, it’s been a great way to enjoy being back with friends after the last year, which has been a challenge for so many teenagers.” 

Don’t Be Afraid To Open A Dialogue

If you are interested in a flexi boarding approach, Jo recommends speaking to the school in question. “Schools that were once bastions of full boarding are now opening their doors to a more flexible approach. Don’t be afraid to ask the school what they can offer you. If they have space, the school may be prepared to show flexibility. Just be aware that each school has a different definition of ‘flexible’. For example, some schools have closed weekends, where pupils must stay in school. Also, many matches take place on a Saturday, so if this is the case, your child won’t be able to come home until Saturday evening.” 

Think About Prep Boarding

As Grace explains, boarding preps tend to be small, caring places with a family environment which provide a good transition to the relative sophistication of senior school. Plus, a boarding prep can suit some families well, says Jo. “For example, I once had a client who was a single working mum with an only child. She found sending her child to a weekly boarding prep not only elevated her childcare issues during the week due to her long working hours, but also meant the child had regular interaction with other children his own age. When he came home at the weekend, homework was complete and the time that the pair had together was relaxed and rewarding.”

Don’t Be Lured By Small Class Sizes

Whether you’re looking at a day or boarding school, try to avoid being swayed by small class sizes, says Jo, which can be limiting for a child’s development. “If you send your child to a small country prep school, you may find class sizes of 10-15, while in larger senior city schools this number can be 25. Whilst small class sizes may appear a good thing due to the high teacher to pupil ratio, beware. Very small class sizes may indicate the school is having problems with pupil recruitment, so make sure you do your financial homework on the school. Plus, children need to be stimulated by the thoughts and opinions of others – very small class sizes can be limiting.”

Take A Step Back

If you’re struggling with your decision, Grace recommends making a frank and honest appraisal of your circumstances and finances as well as considering other siblings and pressures on your time. “Closely consider your child and how and where they thrive. Some children will love boarding and all it offers, and others won’t. There is lots of choice and many different types of boarding school. The important thing, if you decide that your circumstances warrant it, is to match your child to the right school. This may mean a coeducational liberal environment very close to home which offers flexi boarding or it may mean something much more rugged and disciplined further afield.”

Make Your Own Decision

“Take all well-meaning advice from friends and family with a pinch of salt,” Jo advises. “Ultimately, as parents, you know your children better than anyone and your gut instinct is rarely wrong. Remember that what might be the right choice for one child doesn’t mean that it’s right for another.”

Book An Open Day

“There’s really no right or wrong choice for a family, or a child – it is such a personal choice – yet it can be hard not to be influenced by others’ views and experiences. My best advice would be to always visit a school you may be interested in,” Liz recommends. “Like buying a house, visiting a school will give you a strong sense of whether it’s a good fit for you and your child, and this can only be fully appreciated in person.”


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