Spend a night at Woldingham School in Surrey — with its wellness room, indoor tennis dome and a menu offering cod steak with prawns and tarragon, all just an hour’s drive from London — and you may feel like you’re on an upmarket mini-break. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the number of ‘flexi-boarders’ — pupils who stay the night at school just once or twice a week — has grown three-fold since it was introduced three years ago.
‘It’s the perfect solution for us,’ says Siobhan Burgess, who works for the Cabinet Office and whose 14-year-old daughter boards up to two nights a week at the school to fit around sports matches and activities. ‘Corporate life is becoming more flexible and I think Woldingham is very successfully mirroring the corporate world to give parents that flexibility. So, it suits working parents, but it also gives my daughter an element of independence. And I think parents are looking at flexible boarding when they may not have considered it before, when you only had the full boarding option.’
Woldingham is not alone; the 2019 Independent Schools Council (ISC) census shows that the proportion of weekly and flexi-boarders has increased for the third consecutive year, now making up 17.9 per cent of all boarders. Dominic Moon, senior education consultant at the UK Boarding Schools Guide says: ‘Schools have recognised that it’s silly to turn them away. It is absolute folly to try to think that they can fill every single space on full boarding, because parents don’t think that way any more.’ Just over 10 per cent of schools represented by the ISC offer only full boarding, with most of those taking some day pupils as well.
‘The rest are doing a variation on a theme,’ says Moon. ‘They have a bed, so what are they going to do with it? You’re either going to fill it or not, it’s their decision. And with flexi-boarding, parents have something that is socially acceptable; they feel like they still love their children and that they’re getting the best education, so it’s win-win.’
For one single father who is an infantry colour sergeant, an arrangement where his daughter stays at Oakham School in Rutland for four nights a week fits neatly around his military career. ‘Through the week I can concentrate on my work and my daughter is getting a great education and having experiences that I don’t think she’d get at a day school. But then we have the weekends together, and so we’re getting the best of both worlds,’ he says.
Having offered flexible boarding for the past five years, Oakham has now allocated flexi-boarders dedicated houses. ‘There will always be those who want the full boarding model, which is why we’ve been really careful with our house allocations so that we’re supporting individual needs,’ says deputy head Sarah Gomm. ‘Yes, being a flexi-boarder is slightly different to being in a full boarding house but it’s not different in developing that independence and camaraderie.’
It is only the ‘Manchester City and the Man United of the school industry, brand names that have such a pedigree’, with their surplus of applications, that are in a position to stick to a traditional full boarding model, says Moon.
At Rugby School in Warwickshire, 95 per cent of students are boarders, and all of those are full time. ‘I think one of the reasons we can still offer the full boarding model is because we’re significantly oversubscribed,’ says headmaster Peter Green. ‘I understand that for some parents there is a need for flexi-boarding that fits in with their family, especially at prep school age, but there is the danger that it ceases to be a proper boarding experience.
‘And actually, when children reach the age of 13, they want to be with their friends in a fantastic and secure environment. I slightly smile when I read [about] prep schools who are offering a “boarding experience night” — in other words, allowing Mum and Dad to have a good gin and tonic on a Friday evening. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not quite boarding. We’re a truly national boarding school, so if we were to offer flexi-boarding, I think it’s almost a little unfair to the boarders who have travelled a long way and are expecting to have people in their house all the time. And the advantages that full boarding gives are enormous in terms of what the girls and boys can do in that time.’
St Mary’s Ascot’s new headmistress, Danuta Staunton, agrees that having exclusively full boarders is a luxury. ‘When you have the girls with you 24/7, there’s so much you can do with them in that time. Our parents come to us because we are full boarding — and I don’t think they’d want to feel like their girls were left at school while others were going home.’
For Chris Wheeler, principal at Monkton Combe School in Bath, flexi-boarding is a way to ease parents and children into the idea of boarding at all. ‘We’re seeing increasing numbers of first-time independent school families, where they may not have boarded themselves, so might be unsure about it. The premise is to try to encourage people to engage with the idea of boarding,’ he says. At his school, day children are entitled to stay ten nights across Years 7 and 8, rising to 15 nights in the older years. Among 11-year-olds at Monkton, around 30 per cent board, and by the time they’re taking their A-levels it’s 75 per cent — so it’s a model that seems to be working. And it’s a trend reflected across the country, with boarding most popular in sixth form.
‘The challenge with flexi-boarding, where it runs as a more permanent model, is that it could just become a child care solution, which is not really delivering what boarding is about,’ says Wheeler. ‘Of course, there’s an element that the kids want to come in for a bit of a party with their friends and there can be a merit to that, as long as it’s seen as a way into boarding.’
Navigating parents’ changing demands and expectations means waving goodbye to any old-fashioned notions of boarding. ‘There’s no one model any more,’ says Moon. ‘There’s no point in pushing against your target market and saying you can’t have flexi-boarding, because they’ll just go somewhere else.’