Boarding schools vs day schools

They say it takes a village to raise a child. However, for parents educating their children privately, there is a choice of two village-style communities: the day school and the boarding school. ‘Boarding and day are apples and pears,’ says Dr Martin Stephen, highmaster of St Paul’s School in London. ‘You are buying two different things.’

Over the past decade, the gap between the establishments has narrowed. Most boarding schools have become more flexible about exeats, and day schools now offer extra-curricular activities and sports traditionally associated with boarding (St Paul’s has no fewer than six rugby teams for every year group). ‘The independent sector has survived because it has responded to the need of consumers,’ says Dr Stephen.

Modern boarding schools, according to Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School in Rutland, can be a transforming experience. ‘They’re not like they used to be. You don’t just drop off your child and pick them up 15 weeks later,’ he says. ‘There’s constant email contact and there are matches, concerts and drama that all  
parents can be involved in.’

Arguably, these things are standard procedure at a day school. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon, has taught in both sectors, but prefers the day-school experience. ‘I like my daughters coming home in the evening and telling me about their day.’ Pupils at day schools live in two worlds, he says: their home world and their work world, and they matter in both. ‘Day school is rooted in the activities and natural rhythms of a child growing up. It is the normal situation for the majority of young people in the world.’

Day schools dominate the league tables, because, generally, they’re more selective than boarding schools. ‘The league tables only measure your tail [lower grades], not how well you do,’ says Dr Stephen. Little credit, he says, is given to the middle-of-the-road boarding school. ‘These are the schools with three streams: each year, they get 20 people into Oxbridge, the rest get mainly As and Bs and then there’s 15%–20% who struggle to get a B grade, but have
a wonderful time at school. These schools get hammered in league tables.’

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The main difference between good boarding and day schools, according to Dr Stephen, is the pace. ‘We cram a huge amount into the period between 8:30am and 4:30pm. We don’t do more than boarding schools, but we do it in a shorter time. It’s too much for some, but I find it heady and stimulating.’

A common concern with day schools is, however, that children have time on their hands before their parents arrive home from work. ‘Who knows what your child will get up to in the evenings?’ asks Mr Harman. ‘They will get more care and attention at a boarding school.’ According to Dr Stephen, however, day children are kept extremely busy.
Extra-curricular activities at day schools take place in the lunch break and in the afternoons and then there’s always homework to be handed in for the following morning. ‘I am extremely happy to pack my pupils back to their parents after school I think parents care for them better than anyone else,’ he says. ‘If they watch television or go on Facebook from 9:30pm, I don’t see that as a problem.’ Bee Hughes, headmistress of The Maynard School in Exeter, believes parents choose a city day school because it matches their own ethos: ‘We have an active partnership with parents helping pupils to become independent women, and that means an active work/life balance.’

Day-school parents must be committed to their child’s social life, however, which is why families with two working parents often choose the boarding route. ‘Sending your child away from you might seem like an unnatural choice, but it can be a hugely positive one,’ says Sarah Tennant, deputy headmistress of Repton in Derbyshire.

It is more convenient: no driving to music lessons or matches. And children who board are under constant adult supervision on a sophisticated campus. ‘I like the idea of the extended responsibility of bringing up a child. Boarding school inculcates moral and spiritual responsibilities that perhaps aren’t as strongly held at home,’ says Dr Anthony Wallersteiner, headmaster of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. This is not to say parents don’t still play a major part in bringing up their child: ‘We are not trying to be parents we can offer different things but they can complement one another,’ says Mrs Tennant.

Away from home, children naturally develop time management and independence skills that are valuable in the future. At many boarding schools, pupils live in mixed-age houses and are expected to make conversation with adults at meal times. ‘Living in a community with people from lots of different backgrounds rubs the rough edges off,’ says Dr Wallersteiner.

Boarding schools suit everyone, according to Vicky Tuck, headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, but not straight away. ‘The people it doesn’t suit immediately get the most out of it in the long run,’ she says but what if your child is on the phone in tears three times a day, begging to come home? ‘Communication with the house master or mistress is key,’ says Mr Harman. ‘Home-sickness should be picked up on very quickly. Occasionally, we have to admit that a person isn’t thriving, but it rarely happens.’

More often than not, it is the parent rather than their child who doesn’t suit boarding school. ‘Sometimes the pupil is ready, but the mother and/or father isn’t able to let go,’ says Mr Harman. ‘Parents fret too much,’ concurs Mrs Tuck. ‘It’s not good for them, and it’s not good for the child.’

At some schools, ‘full boarders’ are only allowed home for a certain number of exeats each term. This ensures the school doesn’t become a ghost town at the weekends. Others are more flexible and offer weekly or flexi-boarding, where pupils go home for a number of nights each week. For some children, being a day pupil at a boarding school is a good compromise.

In the case of Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset and Westonbirt, day girls are integrated into the boarding houses. ‘Day girls are encouraged to take a full part in the life of the school, including weekend and social activities,’ says Jenny Dwyer, headmistress at Sherborne. However, parents should always investigate whether there is any day versus boarding rivalry: ‘Day pupils in some schools are regarded as second-class citizens by the boarding majority,’ says Richard Cairns of Brighton College.

Day-school headmasters argue that, although boarding school prepares you for university, your mother or father prepares you for life much better than matron. Day school, says Mr Halls of King’s College School, requires children to become independent minded and to take more responsibility in making the right choices: ‘By the time you’re 18 or 19, you’re ready to break away from home. When you’re 13, you’re not.’