The BSA Guide to UK Boarding Schools


The parents

how boarding affects families

Simon and Rebecca Hamilton-Bing have two sets of twin girls at King’s Ely
Before joining King’s Ely, we were feeling increasingly guilty over the lack of extra-curricular activities the girls did. We often rushed home for 6pm to spend quality time with them, which amounted to no more than frantically cooking a wholesome, vegetable-laden meal (not always achieved), while they were in a different part of the house watching TV. So, quality time ended up being tea, bath, bed. To top it all, we were paying someone the same amount as the military personal contribution to do the school run and sit with them for two hours. The idea of boarding started to gain momentum, especially during a Christmas Out of Area.

We looked at several schools within scope but with no particular thoughts on type or specialisation. However, we both judged the schools on the ‘feel’ of the place, the ‘buzz’, the way the escorts carried themselves and what they had to say, the facilities and the boarding house. King’s Ely felt right straightaway. We were impressed by the amount of activity going on during the initial and subsequent visits. It seemed every other child was carrying some sort of musical instrument or in some sports kit or other. What was most noticeable amongst the buzz of ordered chaos was how cheerful the children were. The cynic may think this was some sort of St Trinian’s staging but it soon became apparent that this wasn’t the case.
We took home a Yearbook to show the girls, and asked them to circle the pictures they thought looked interesting. This got them quite enthused, especially the Prep Boarding House, the Priory. This 11th century building was the original Cathedral’s Priors’ House and with its Gothic proportions, domed ceilings and gargoyles, it was enough like Hogwarts for the girls to want to take a look. Although a rather grand and imposing building, the Priory is a small House with a maximum of 20 or so residents. The Housemaster and family ‘live in’ and are generally aided by a couple of gap students and a tutor. This creates a lovely warm atmosphere where the kids feel safe and soon get used to their second home. This was particularly important to us as our younger set of twin girls were only just eligible (by two days) and boarded for a whole school year before turning eight.

Academically, all four girls are performing ahead of the national average by at least a whole grade. However, King’s Ely is not some kind of old style Grammar where children are ‘hot-housed’ to mental exhaustion. Something we didn’t appreciate at first, but now cherish above all else, is the holistic approach the school takes in growing the whole child. It isn’t just the smaller class sizes, external trips and visiting speakers that make the difference. We are constantly amazed at what they get up to: debating points of history, small enterprise projects, numerous clubs, sports and high calibre stage productions all form part of routine life at King’s Ely. All of these are aimed at making each child a well-rounded and confident young adult. Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without high quality, dedicated and enthusiastic teaching staff, whose passion for their subjects shines through every parents’ evening.

Perhaps the best example of how the holistic approach works is by mentioning one of my elder twins. No star in state school at Year 2, but ahead of the majority of her peers, she received good solid reports. However, it quickly became apparent in her first year at King’s Ely something was not quite right. After some testing she was diagnosed with dyslexia which affected her short-term working memory. The Learning Support Team at King’s Ely has done a most fantastic job and got her from 18 months behind to ahead of the Key Stage requirements. She even loves Latin!

We still miss the girls each night and we’re sure they miss us. We know they are safe and well cared for, that they enjoy going to school (even double maths!) and are benefiting from a well-rounded curriculum delivered by transformational teachers.

Mark and Anne Raeburn have two sons at St John’s College, Southsea
After returning from a foreign posting, as a family we became increasingly aware that our children would need a much greater level of stability in their education. With one son about to start secondary education we began our search. Trying to do this several thousand miles away with a seven-hour time difference was quite a challenge. It quickly became apparent that St John’s College would be most accommodating. They looked at Cameron’s academic performance abroad and were exceptionally helpful in reassuring us that they could quickly pick up the slack where he had been disadvantaged in a foreign system. Since returning to the UK we have had an excellent relationship with the school and as a result Cameron’s brother Findlay also enrolled to the Senior School. As the school is in the centre of Southsea, we were also pleased that if the boys had any problems they would be able to contact our friends in the Service, based in Portsmouth, at short notice.

The school has excellent sports facilities and the extra-curricular activities at the weekends are well thought out with the children having the majority of the input. The boarding facilities are all on site in several detached houses, which have recently been refurbished to a high standard and have a very homely feel especially for the younger children. There are a significant number of Service families in the boarding community and through a Service Parents’ Group meeting held at the end of every term we have managed to help shape the whole boarding experience for our children. During this meeting we discuss any issues that may be unique to Service parents, especially those serving abroad. We also discuss any events or activities that we, as Service parents, would like to see happening at the school.

Now heading into sixth form there was an opportunity for Cameron to transfer to another college but he was very keen to remain at St John’s. I think this is the best endorsement one could wish for.

Andy and Natalie Flay have two sons at Taunton School
Natalie and I have discovered that Taunton is truly interested in all children – not just the incredibly bright or sporty ones. It’s very egalitarian, both in its attitude to its pupils and in its parent base, and we’ve found this attitude permeates through Taunton School pupils. They really do understand that the more they put into life, inevitably, the more they get back. And we’ve discovered that both our boys really do have the most unbelievable opportunities to ‘put into’ their school careers. They’ve gone from a limited appreciation of the technical aspects of many sports to fully-fledged rugby, athletics, hockey, cricket, tennis and swimming aficionados. It’s been fantastic to watch them both develop such a love of sport. When we can, we do try and watch matches – though this is often difficult. However when we do we’re so impressed by the fact that Taunton regularly fields A, B, C and D teams. The mantra is that everyone should play competitive sport and have the opportunity to represent their school.

Previously English was a cross our eldest son bore with fortitude – if nothing else. It’s now his second favourite subject. How and where Taunton found the key to unlock this is beyond his frankly astonished parents – but we’re truly grateful – for his sake (not just our own!). We’ve also discovered that both boys can sing – and the eldest one seems to have developed a love of ‘treading the boards’! Last term we were both fortunate enough to watch him in the winning group in the Group Acting Class at the Taunton Arts Festival. He also made a brilliantly terrifying Chief Pirate in the Year 6 play, Pirates and Mermaids. We had no idea that he had any interest or ability in speech and drama and yet Taunton found it and drew it out of him!

As for the boarding aspect, our worries about how the boys might settle evaporated almost immediately. (Frequent postings have meant that they had both been to several schools and so we worried that it might take them a while to settle.) The boarding team at Thone are kind, caring and imaginative and the boarders seem to absolutely love being there. Recently, when we finally managed to track our eldest son down via the telephone to wish him a happy birthday, he promptly informed us that he ‘couldn’t talk right now’ as he was too busy playing ‘Capture the Flag.’ That told us!

In a nutshell it would be accurate to describe Taunton as a school that brilliantly draws children out of their comfort zones while managing to remain grounded, kind and caring. As a military family I really don’t think we could have picked a better school for our boys.

David and Lyanne Willey have two daughters at Barnard Castle School
I used to be one of those parents who thought that I would never be able to let go enough to send my children to boarding school, but after five schools by the time my eldest daughter Chloe had reached ten, and the heartfelt tears she shed after saying goodbye to her friends and teachers each time, we decided enough was enough. Because our family and friends were mainly located in Yorkshire, we chose to look around that area so that Chloe and Aimee would always have somebody nearby. We chose Barnard Castle.

As soon as you walk into Barney the first thing you notice is how genuinely happy the staff and pupils are. With the well-equipped classrooms, the safe and spacious school grounds and the beautiful location, what’s not to like! The school worked around our needs – if we needed to drop Chloe off early so that we could catch a ferry back home, or if we couldn’t attend parents’ meetings, the school couldn’t have been more helpful, offering lots of different solutions. In her first two terms at Barney Chloe had already achieved so much and we put this down to her new friends and the very gifted and dedicated teachers who make her learning incredibly enjoyable.

At first, boarding life was understandably difficult for all of us, but because of the amazing care, family values and the wide-ranging opportunities that the boarders receive I was inundated with happy Facetime calls. We are always very well informed through the comprehensive range of communication, including the weekly newsletter, fixtures and events on the website, telephone calls and letters. Family and friends can go to the many sports events.

My youngest daughter Aimee (nine years old) was left at home with friends moving away constantly. After hearing about all the genuine fun that Chloe was having, she asked if she could go earlier than we had planned. They are now both at Barney, sharing a room, competing together, enjoying the wide range of opportunities available and making some fantastic friends and memories that will stay with them forever.

Alex and Anna Potts have chosen Hanford School for their three daughters
We have three daughters and when they were little we were lucky enough to be based in Scotland where we had a blissful family time. We knew that with our next posting a boarding school for our eldest Mary, then eight, would be inevitable, as it would offer her the educational stability she needed. Mary had already attended three different schools by the time she was eight and was experienced at moving. However, dealing with change was difficult for her and our other children. Particularly when it came to saying goodbye to established friends and facing the prospect of starting afresh all over again somewhere new.

Choosing a boarding school is never an easy process and as Service parents location is not necessarily the key issue – it’s about finding the ‘right’ place. There are lots of prep schools to choose from up and down the country and it’s simply not practical to see them all, especially when you live in Scotland. So to help us narrow it down we relied on the advice of friends and family and a few of them, including an army colleague of Alex’s, recommended the same school – Hanford.

We set off from Scotland to look at a handful of schools not knowing really what to expect. From the minute we rolled down the drive at Hanford it was obvious this was the school for our family. Set in the heart of some of Dorset’s most beautiful countryside and housed in a fascinating Jacobean manor, Hanford, although being a great school, still manages to feel like a home. There are stables with ponies and chickens pottering around, a working kitchen garden, a walled garden full of flowers and happy children running around the gardens and climbing trees.

We were shown round the school by a pair of delightful girls who chatted non stop about the school almost as if it were their second home pointing out, alongside the classrooms, places where they loved to spend time and play. The school seeks to nurture simple family values including kindliness and good manners, as well as developing confidence by nurturing success in both academic work and play. Hanford is firmly focused on drawing the potential out of the individual girls. I can honestly say it does just that.

Seven years on, Mary and Ella have left and Phoebe is boarding at Hanford. I have become a Governor and am involved more than I ever imagined I would be. The school has added something to all of our lives and all the grandparents have been taken by its unique charm.

The school really does look after the individual with its small class sizes and talented teachers. The girls genuinely don’t realise how hard they are working. They have all secured places in their preferred schools, with an abundance of scholarships to boot, as well as enjoying outstanding academic, sporting and musical results. All while still being able to go for their early morning pony rides, clambering up the cedar tree (all branches named), gardening, handwork, but above all allowing them to cherish their childhood.

We ask Mary and Ella what they miss about Hanford and there is an endless list focusing on friends, teachers, ponies, dares, committees, rollerblading, plays, music, art and sport. Phoebe couldn’t be happier – sadly for her Mummy! It is her third school and Alex and I really appreciate how important it is to select the right school to support our nomadic lifestyle. The girls would have really struggled without the stability and continuity that a boarding school provides. It’s a huge decision sending your children away to school but one that is made easier for us knowing that Hanford’s staff are looking after them and the children are truly happy. We owe much to Hanford and I’m in a very lucky position of being able to help secure its future for other families in years to come.

Stuart and Elizabeth Bartlett have twin daughters in Year 10 at Queen’s College, Taunton
As my Service career had been reasonably stable – having been based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset for many years – boarding school was not the path we expected to take regarding our twin girls’ education. With excellent schools on our doorstep everything seemed set for a smooth passage through the education system.

However the demise of the Harrier then necessitated a move and no stable base area at the time. Remembering colleagues’ academic and emotional turmoil associated with multiple school movements, we started researching our options regarding boarding schools with some trepidation.

The plethora of available schools can seem overwhelming – how to make, for all, an extremely important decision. Queen’s College, Taunton, was the first school we visited. From the minute we arrived on open day we were made to feel welcome and any questions we had were answered open and honestly. Everyone expects a school to be at its best on an open day but, looking beyond this, we could see a family values run school, where pupils were championed to excel in their own fields. Yes, the facilities were impressive but also the welfare of the child seemed paramount to all.

However, to ensure we covered all aspects of our children’s educational needs, a comprehensive programme of visits to schools in the region followed. Every school exceeded our expectations, each proclaiming its exam results and excellences. In truth, this made our decision even harder. Such was our length of deliberation that a new round of open days arrived and so a second visit was required to create a small shortlist. Once we had listed all our requirements, as a family we determined that Queen’s was the one.

Next step was a taster session – not a showcasing opportunity, just the occasion to take part in normal school life. Our girls didn’t want to come home afterwards, embracing the new school life from the start. Originally planning to start boarding in Year 6, they insisted they wanted to join earlier, an indication of their wholehearted approval. Cue frantic labelling of uniform and constant reassurance to each other that we had done the right thing. I don’t know who was the most apprehensive or tearful when packing their suitcases for their first term – me or my wife. It certainly wasn’t our girls.

Although it is not a military boarding school, Queen’s has a significant Service boarding community. The school therefore understands the unique situation of Service life with all its rewards and challenges. The pastoral system is fully embedded, with the school ensuring boarders have the opportunity for stimulating and fun clubs and activities and are not left to amuse themselves. Their school parents (our children’s words not ours) are always available to overcome any problems. Something that seems trivial at first can easily escalate when mum and dad are not around to placate or rectify but the staff were always there to help. As our girls have progressed through senior school, more freedom has been granted to them and therefore some degree of autonomy, especially regarding time and work management. Without realising it, they are gaining life skills we could only dream of at that age.

Did we feel guilty sending them to a boarding school? Of course we did. Saying goodbye to them on a Sunday night followed by a long drive home was distressing for us at first. Although we never experienced emotional breakdowns over the phone, the calls would sometimes be tearful and the length of hugs before our departure extensive. In time though, the calls have steadily drifted from tearful to happy to a rarity, all as a result of the extensive care and attention from staff and matrons to ensure a happy boarding school life.

Receiving a hectic and frantic Facetime call as they can only spare us ten minutes before rushing off to do something else exciting at school or in their dorm is now bizarrely a strange reassurance. While they appreciate their home life, the camaraderie they have with fellow boarders mimics Service life and is to be treasured long into adulthood.

The comprehensive and honest feedback from the school regarding their academic progress, combined with the development of their maturity we have seen over a few short years, has fully vindicated our decision. The final indication of ultimate approval surely must be – would we do this all over again? The answer from all the family is a most positive ‘Yes’.

The Bakers have a daughter and a son at Abbotsholme School
It wasn’t until we had to view secondary schools for Sophie that boarding education came to light. As a military family we have had many friends with children in boarding school who speak highly of the experience. However, as a family we were very much opposed to the separation of our tight unit and could never imagine being apart from our children.

Sophie, who always used to be quiet and cautious, changed our lives forever when she refused to enrol in our catchment area secondary school. She firmly stated that ‘If you send me there I will not go!’ What were we to do? After a sleepless night and much discussion, Sophie stated that she wanted to go to boarding school. Well, we thought she was joking, as this little girl had never even been away from home before. However, we thought we would give her the chance and started viewing boarding schools, in view of this venture falling through at the first hurdle. We narrowed our search to schools that offered horse riding education; horses are her passion and we felt that this should continue.
Abbotsholme School was the third school we viewed with Sophie. As we drove up the narrow country lane to the school and saw the large stately house, nestled in the Weaver hills and the horse paddock came into in view, we all instantly felt that we had found the one! Moreover, after such a warm welcome from the Headmaster, as parents we were satisfied that our beautiful daughter would be well cared for here. The immense passion he had for the school and the dedication he expressed was endearing and made us feel proud, as parents, that are daughter would be given the opportunity in life to experience independence, adventure, education and virtue.

As soon as we got back to the car Sophie pleaded to attend Abbotsholme. Therefore, to be certain of the commitment she attended a trial when she slept there for a night and attended lessons. It went so well that she even went back for another trial before her term started!

The decision to send her to boarding school was immensely important for Sophie as she has seen many of her close friends leave primary school due to military postings and struggled through their loss. Therefore boarding school seemed to be a fantastic opportunity for her to be able to remain stationary and allow the family to move around her. Furthermore, as she was entering her secondary education, as parents it was very important for us to support Sophie through her education and have that continuity.

However, after enrolment the reality hits hard that your family will be split and that your daughter will be sleeping under another roof. It is the hardest decision as parents that we have ever had to make but one that we have never regretted. Our decision has been questioned by many family members and friends who are unfamiliar with military life but our strength as a family unit has remained tight and grown stronger – as our reasons for Sophie attending was purely her own desire. This experience has made our family adapt to a new way of living, approach unfamiliar terrain and push us to our limits in terms of separation (there is only so much that can be said over the telephone) but as a family we have come together.

We take great comfort from the fact that Sophie states that Abbotsholme is her home for learning and her home with the family is wherever her father is posted. We cannot thank Abbotsholme enough for the transformation in our daughter. The support, guidance and dedication the school continues to demonstrate is evident through the outstanding curriculum and ventures they offer. We have encouraged Sophie to accept the unfamiliar and embrace the encounter to enable her to develop into a confident young lady.

However, the venture starts all over again with our youngest, Joe. After watching by the sideline our son is at senior school there and has thrown himself in too!


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