Katy Pearson discovers that the demand for boarding schools is as strong as ever, with an even wider choice of education provision

With about 70,000 boarders currently at UK schools, there is no disputing the demand for a boarding school education remains strong in 2023. 

Boarding can be found as far north as the Shetland Islands, just 50 miles from Norway and as far south as the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles south of Cornwall. 

Indeed, the UK, for all the sector’s global spread, is the oldest, most diverse and choice-rich land for boarding. Prince William, George Orwell and Boris Johnson are all Eton College alumni, while Princess Eugenie attended Marlborough College and Winston Churchill and Benedict Cumberbatch were once Harrow boys. 

How do you make an informed decision to send your child to boarding school if you haven't had the experience of a boarding school yourself? 

‘Parents are spoilt for choice with boarding schools that are independent, state run, single sex, co-educational, academic, all-round, faith, arts, drama and music-focused – or myriad combinations in between,’ explains Robin Fletcher, CEO Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and BSA Group. 

Great British Life: Robin Fletcher, CEO of BSARobin Fletcher, CEO of BSA (Image: BSA)

‘Size-wise, the smallest UK boarding school has just one student while the largest has more than 1,300. The average UK boarding school has around 150 boarders, although there are many that have fewer, with around 30 that have more than 500.’ 

It is all too easy for the uninitiated to fall back on old stereotypes when it comes to boarding schools (you may have watched the young Prince Charles in the Crown at Gordonstoun) but the benefits are far from the stuff of Netflix dramas. 

‘As a former boarder myself, I can tell you that boarding today is a very different world. It’s certainly nothing like the stereotypical images of boarding, which wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of a Harry Potter novel,’ smiles Mr Fletcher. 

Great British Life: Boarding teaches children to live independentlyBoarding teaches children to live independently (Image: Lancaster Royal Grammar School)

‘Aside from excellent academic teaching and learning, the popularity of boarding at schools in the UK is driven by the unique opportunities it offers young people from 8-18. 

‘Boarding school is all about learning to live with others, experiencing a shared space, working together, having extra time to try new things (by avoiding school runs twice a day) and learning to stand on your own two feet. 

‘All UK boarding schools closely monitor the feedback they receive from parents and the most regular comments are about how their children have become more independent and confident thanks to their boarding experience. 

Great British Life: Boarding schools provide an all-round experienceBoarding schools provide an all-round experience (Image: Getty)

‘Much of this independence and confidence comes from being with other young people – but it is also the highly trained, caring and professional boarding staff who help them to prosper and thrive on solid foundations.’ 

But what are the different types of boarding available today? 

‘Although full boarding remains most popular overall, the pattern appears to be changing with weekly and flexi boarding becoming more popular,’ reveals Barnaby Lenon, former headmaster of Harrow School and chairman of the Independent Schools Council (ISC).  

‘In 2016, 15.7 per cent of boarders were weekly or flexi boarders, in 2022 the figure was 22.8 per cent. Many working parents value the flexibility of these boarding options.’ 

And there's widening access to boarding schools too. 

‘Over the past 15 years, there has been a consistent trend of schools providing increasing amounts of fee assistance to pupils,’ adds Mr Lenon. 

‘More than 40,000 pupils receive means-tested bursaries, valued at £480 million in 2021. The average bursary is worth £10,840 per pupil per year.’  

England’s state boarding schools are often described as education’s best-kept secret. They usually have an ‘independent’ ethos and education is free. Boarding fees are typically about a third of the cost of independent boarding schools. 

Academic results are often a major factor for parents choosing boarding, whether state or otherwise. 

‘Value-added analysis shows that boarders tend to do even better than day pupils at GCSE, as a result of the support and encouragement they receive from boarding staff who engage with boarders’ academic challenges during and outside prep times,’ says Dr Chris Pyle, head of Lancaster Royal Grammar School – one of England’s state boarding schools. 

Great British Life: It's not all about lessonsIt's not all about lessons (Image: Lancaster Royal Grammar School)

But it’s not just the finest academic qualifications that young people need today to succeed. 

‘They also need strength of character and skills such as communication, teamwork and resilience to build happy, fulfilling, worthwhile lives,’ Paul Sanderson, headmaster of Bloxham School, sums up on ukbsa.com. 



Find comprehensive guidance on your boarding school search with The BSA Guide to Boarding School’s website (ukbsa.com) The website covers all aspects of boarding education, including funding, selecting a school, academic success, co-curricular opportunities, specialist schools, schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, as well as sixth-form choices.  


Great British Life: Children will make friends for lifeChildren will make friends for life (Image: Lancaster Royal Grammar School)


What it’s really like being at boarding school 

(all via ukbsa.com) 


Camilla is at Port Regis 

I am so lucky to board at Port Regis. I started boarding when I was seven. My father is in the Army. I have made the best friends and it’s a real home-from-home in the boarding house. Sometimes when I’m really tired, I get a bit homesick but most of the time I’m too busy with my hobbies, friends and prep. In the boarding house we have theme nights, do some cooking and watch movies in our pyjamas.  

At school my favourite subjects are drama (I’m about to play the part of Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest), art, English, and sport – especially gymnastics. Our food is amazing, especially when we have sausages and bacon for breakfast and salt and pepper squid at lunch. I also love the different things we can choose from the salad bar. I think Port Regis has been fantastic for building my confidence, learning to follow timetables, making friends and learning new skills.  


Jemima is at Dauntsey’s  

I decided to come to Dauntsey’s and board when my sister, who is three years older than me, started boarding at The Manor, the Lower School boarding house. She told me stories about how wonderful it was and every time I visited it always seemed so homely. I thought at first that I could never think of it as a second home, but once I had started, I realised how wrong I was. My favourite subject is PE, especially swimming where we do games to help build our confidence in the water.  

Next favourite is design technology because it is creative but at the same time you have to follow the instructions very carefully, especially when you are using the big machines. There are lots of clubs to get involved in here. I do handicraft club, which is great fun and relaxing and you get to take home anything that you make. For sport I do swimming and hockey. I’m not very good at either but I think I am improving! I really enjoy living at The Manor with my friends. I have made lots of good memories already – the best so far is The Manor Bonfire Night, which is great fun. 


Maddie is at Dean Close School 

I have been a boarder at Dean Close since I was nine years old, and I couldn’t imagine anything different. My family move every two or three years so having somewhere else to call ‘home’ is very nice. The achievements I have accomplished and watched others achieve at school are amazing. Dean Close has really made me feel proud of myself and more confident in what I can do. I’ve learnt to shoot an air rifle and a .22 rifle, I’ve been able to participate in over 20 Speech and Drama Cheltenham Festival classes, achieved four LAMDA exam distinctions and honours in a Victoria College exam. I would never have been able to do all of this at an SCE (Service Children’s Education) or state school. 

From a boarding perspective, my house is not in the centre of school so it feels like I can go ‘home’ at the end of the day. I was lucky to have two of my siblings at school when I started and I made friends quickly. A lot of my friends are military children too, which helps because they understand things that some of my other friends can’t. When I first came to Dean Close, my dad was deployed and it was a hard time for me as I was new to being away from home. My mum and younger sister were at home in Germany and my dad was away for some time. My houseparent always made time for me to call and Skype my dad. When I joined the Senior School, I was quite nervous about the older girls in the House and whether or not there would be people who understood what it is like. I had nothing to worry about, as the girls were all so kind and everyone wanted to help make my time here the best it can be.