Choosing a boarding school in the UK

UK boarding schools are some of the world’s best-performing and most sought-after schools, the global appetite for which shows no sign of decreasing. We examine what residential education has to offer.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Box Hill School

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 UK boarding schools are some of the world’s best-performing and most sought-after schools. And, with international students comprising a third of the 70,000+ pupils currently at the UK’s 500 or so boarding schools, the global appetite for a traditional residential education shows no sign of diminishing.With hundreds of boarding schools to choose from across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, UK boarding schools offer a wealth of choice in terms of surroundings, specialisms and religious affiliations. In both rural and urban settings, there are top-performing schools that specialise in areas such as sport, music, art, drama, or an academic subject.“Part of the strength of the British boarding market is the diversity of schools available,” says a Boarding Schools’ Association spokesperson. “They may be near airports for ease of travel back to far-flung countries, or near the mountains, giving pupils more access to the great outdoors; in the middle of fine cities with all their facilities, or in small country towns where the high street is a safe and friendly resource for young people off site for a couple of hours.”School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts

Global mobility and boarding

But it is for the relocating family that the option of a residential education could be a particularly appealing option. Karin Purcell, of Marymount London, a Catholic boarding school for girls, believes that choosing a boarding education can have very obvious advantages in the global mobility context. “The benefits of continuity and academic consistency provided by remaining at the same school are immeasurable,” says Ms Purcell. “This removes the stress of changing systems, languages, climates, cultures and friends, especially in the final years of education, when disruption is least desirable.”This theory certainly holds true when looking at the statistics. According to the 2017 Independent Schools Council (ISC) Census, boarding is far more prevalent at sixth-form than at junior level, and sixth-formers are more likely to board on a full-time basis. Their 2019 Census confirms the boarding landscape is changing, reflecting parental preferences. Whilst full boarding remains the most popular boarding pattern, there has been a shift in recent years to weekly and flexi boarding. The proportion of weekly and flexi boarders has increased for three consecutive years. In 2016, 15.7 per cent of borders were weekly or flexi borders. In 2019 that stands at 17.9 per cent.It is this flexibility that really marks out modern boarding from its traditional stereotype. Long gone are the days when families were forced to wave their children off on the first day of term, not to lay eyes on them again until the last. There are a range of residential options to choose from, including full boarding, weekly boarding and flexi-boarding.

Full, weekly or flexi boarding?

Over the past 10 years, boarding schools have endeavoured to respond to the ever-changing needs of the modern family lifestyle. Busy parents have increasingly pushed for a more flexible approach to boarding, one that enables students to switch from traditional patterns to staying the night on a flexible basis.“We are very flexible in our boarding offering to fit in with parents’ busy working lives,” explains Quelli Coles, housemistress at Vinehall School, a co-educational prep school in Sussex. “We offer full, weekly and flexi boarding as well as 8am to 8pm boarding which includes supper, prep and activities. We are also happy to have children to stay for weekends or extended weeks if parents are going away or have work commitments.”Culford School is an independent day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 2¾–18 years. It offers flexi-boarding for prep-school students, who can board for as little as three nights per week or take advantage of occasional boarding, which is designed for parents who travel on business and is priced per night.“Pupils are able to go home at the weekends or join in with an enriching weekend activities programme which includes trips to the zoo, laser quest and cinema visits, to name a few,” explains a member of boarding staff at the school. “Activities for boarders take place every evening, ranging from sports such as swimming and football to ‘learn to DJ’ lessons!”Full boarding provides residential education for pupils during the week and over the weekend for the whole term. This type of boarding usually appeals to overseas families and those who would ordinarily have a long journey to the school.It is worth noting that there are fewer and fewer boarding schools that predominantly offer full boarding. And if it is an option that you are considering, it is important to find out from the school the proportion of students that board full time, as it will be a lonely existence if your child is one of only a handful left to board at the weekend.The majority of students at Merchiston Castle School, a boys-only boarding school in Edinburgh, opt for full boarding. “With around 70 per cent of boys boarding full-time, there is always a varied programme of evening and weekend activities ensuring that there is something for everyone,” explains Tracey Gray, Merchiston’s external relations manager. “I believe that boarding provides boys with a wide variety of interests, a more diverse social life and helps them to develop closer relationships with friends.”Weekly boarding and flexi-boarding can offer a more tailored boarding experience to suit the needs of individual families. While weekly boarders can opt to travel home at the weekends, flexi-boarders can take advantage of boarding for part of the week, perhaps to break up a week of long journeys to and from the school.“Families often choose weekly boarding for the GCSE and sixth-form years,” says a spokesperson for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), a professional association of heads of leading independent schools. “This is usually to enable their children to concentrate better on their studies by reducing the time spent travelling to and from school, and by giving them full access to extensive academic and co-curricular facilities throughout the extended boarding day.”

Settling into life at a boarding school

Most schools will offer a wide range of activities to help boarders settle in and get to know each other. John Attewell, head of boarding at Box Hill School in Surrey recognises the nerves involved in boarding for the first time and explains how the school helps new boarders to settle in. “We acknowledge how important the first few days can be in helping a child feel at home and our induction programme is designed specifically to ensure the transition to their new environment is as smooth as possible.“It therefore seeks to be fun, whilst providing opportunities to bond with peers and gather information to ensure that the pupil’s start to life at the school is a genuinely positive one.”Many schools also pair students up with ‘buddies’ – current boarders – who help them to find their feet in the first weeks and months. Vinehall School is one such school. “All new boarders have a boarding guardian who shadows them for at least two weeks or until they are confident about what they are doing,” explains Ms Coles. “The guardian has a list of important things they need to teach the new child and all boarding school staff spend time with new children getting to know them so that they are happy to come to us if they have any problems.”

Boarding houses

It is within the schools’ boarding houses that students really get the chance to integrate with other students and make friends while spending time away from family. But not all boarding houses are the same, and it is worth checking how your chosen school organises and structures the way in which students live, study and spend their extracurricular time together.Sevenoaks School, in Kent, a coeducational day and boarding school for students aged 11–18, was rated ‘exceptional’ in its latest inspection report and recently won the accolade of Sunday Times Independent Secondary School of the Year. With a 600-year history and around 1,080 pupils, including international students from 40 countries around the world, the school has a total of 350 boarders, the vast majority of whom are sixth-formers.“Sevenoaks School has seven boarding houses, two of which – the International Centre and the Girls’ International House (GIH) – are dedicated specifically to sixth-form IB students,” says head of boarding Nichola Haworth.

Boarding's global appeal

But it is Sevenoaks School’s international reputation that often attracts globally mobile families.“The global appeal isn’t just the huge variation of nationalities at the school, it’s also the willingness of parents to move internationally to further careers,” says Nichola Haworth. “Many of our parents are expatriate; they work in a vibrant global mix and recognise a similar mix in the make-up of our international boarding houses. Their children are here because they believe the connections that they make will open up a whole world of opportunity in the future.”Padworth College in Reading caters to over 30 different nationalities and the majority of boarders reside within four boarding houses. “Our boarding is very international,” says Marzia Di Bella-Negi, head of marketing and admissions. “We have many different cultures in one house or even one room which creates an inspiring exchange of values and fosters intercultural understanding.”

Extracurricular activities

Most boarding schools will offer extracurricular activities that include a wide range of sports, music, dance, drama, art and photography. It will be worth checking that the activities on offer during the evenings and at weekends at the school of your choice match the interests of the child and the family.The extensive provision at Box Hill School aims to cater for all tastes. “We provide at least one trip per weekend which is included in the fees and highlights from last year included Cirque du Soleil, a speedboat trip down the River Thames and a day trip to Bruges for Christmas shopping,” says Mr Attewell. “These are complemented by House trips to cinemas, pizza nights and tenpin bowling throughout the week. Boarders have ready access to the school’s excellent facilities and, from Spring 2018 a brand new Sports complex will provide even more opportunities.” 

Entrance exams

Some boarding schools will require prospective students to take an entrance exam. The test is a useful device for schools to ensure that they can make appropriate provision for the individual child. Of course, there remain some highly selective boarding schools for which the tests will be extremely challenging, but this will be made clear during the application stage. With the proliferation of the wide variety of boarding options in the UK, there will be a school that caters for the needs of most families.


Fees will vary from school to school, from region to region, and across the different boarding options. Junior-school fees are typically lower than senior-school fees, while fees for sixth-formers are the highest.The average termly fee in the sixth form is around £7,200. In the junior years, it is £5,200. The table below, from the Independent Schools Council’s annual census 2019, offers a good snapshot of the fees that boarding schools charge for each stage of learning.ISC Census table of school fees But it is not just the school fees that parents will need to enquire about. It is important to find out exactly what is included in the published school fees, as there may be many hidden costs, such as study materials, school trips, and unexpected charges for extracurricular activities.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.
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