Sunday, May 26, 2024

What is a boarding school?

The British boarding school resides in a unique niche. Melanie Butler shines a light on what it’s all about

Language courses owned and run by British boarding schools are still the highest performers in our annual rankings, achieving over eight strengths out of an average 15 on inspection. There’s no doubt that some have been hit by Covid: three schools have left the accreditation scheme, but only one, King’s College St Michael’s, has closed. The other two seem merely to have dropped their EFL summer schools.

Summer courses are the area in which most boarding schools operate EFL, but it is important to remember that not all summer programmes taking place in boarding schools are actually run by the school, despite what language travel agents might imply in their brochures. That’s not to say that all English language course providers who rent school premises for the summer are of less good quality. Indeed, two summer school specialists, Summer Boarding Courses and Discovery Summer, score higher in our rankings than their boarding counterparts.

However, if you choose a summer school at random, you’re much more likely to hit upon a high-ranking course if it’s owned and run by a boarding school, though it’s sometimes difficult to tell.

There are boarding schools, like Stonyhurst, which designate its summer school as a private language school to differentiate it from the institution. Then there are boarding schools, like Bath Academy, which call themselves private tutorial colleges, though legally they’re boarding schools.

Finally, we have school chains, like the King’s Group, which own boarding schools and language schools. If the British Council inspects the English language teaching in the boarding school as well as in the language school, as they do at King’s, we count those too.

We even have a boarding school at the top of the academic league table, Concord College, which started life as a language school.

So, what is a boarding school?

To answer this question we need to know what a school is in the eyes of the law.

The legal answer varies a little depending on which of the four nations of the UK we’re looking at (education is a devolved issue), but under English law it is any establishment offering full curriculum education (not just language teaching, for example) which has enrolled five or more students under the age of 16. All such schools must be registered.

A boarding school is a legally registered school which offers residential accommodation, though that may include the use of host families who become the child’s foster parent in the eyes of the law.

In all the nations of the UK, such schools must be inspected by the relevant authorities to check that they meet National Minimum Standards for Boarding, which are extremely strict regulations covering premises, pastoral care and safeguarding. There are also standards

for institutions which educate students aged 16-18, generally called further education, and offer residential accommodation National boarding standards do not cover boarding for short courses and vacation courses, which is one reason why some schools choose to be inspected by the British Council. However, long experience of adhering strict safeguarding rules means they tend to excel in this area, with 84% of accredited boarding schools achieving an area of strength in safeguarding in the British Council inspection.

All the boarding schools with accredited language operations are fee paying independent schools. Some state-funded schools do offer boarding, but none of these, to the best of our knowledge, offer separate English language courses, although accredited further education college Itchen offers host family accommodation for year- round international students aged 16+.

When international students and their parents think of British boarding schools, they tend to think of summer schools at Hogwarts: an old, not for profit educational trust in a historic building surrounded by acres of beautiful grounds. And there are many accredited boarding schools that fit that description. Take St Edmund’s College, Ware, the oldest Catholic school in England, which boasts 20 Catholic saints among its former pupils and has been on its current site at Old Hall Green since 1793, where it has run a high-ranking international summer school for many years.

But British boarding schools offer a wide variety of courses in a variety of geographic locations. These might be year-long English and academic courses for children preparing for British education, like those run by Millfield International in London, Sherbourne International and Bishopstrow in the heart of England.

One of the biggest growth areas are the schools – like Brooke House College in rural Leicestershire – that started life as sixth-form colleges, but now take younger students. Or those like Buckswood in Sussex by the sea, which runs the highly ranked BOSS summer school that started for international students but now welcomes local children to its school as well.

Indeed, there is a new sector moving in to the field: the international school specialists who are looking to acquire British boarding schools and summer operations. First we had Globeducate, which acquired International Community School, the only independent day school in the accreditation scheme; then a boarding school, Stonar, near Bath. One-long established international school chain, Cognita, acquired Ardmore, while this summer its arch-rival, Nord Anglia, acquired the Bucksmore summer operations.

These kinds of changes are nothing new in the history of British boarding schools, which stretches back to 957AD when a school for boys was started in Canterbury Cathedral. But the educational importance of these institutions remains as, it seems, does their appeal to foreign parents looking to send their children to learn English.

Although other English-speaking countries also have boarding schools, and the Irish have begun using theirs for summer schools, the range of depth of the provision in the UK remains unique. In recent years more boarding schools have been opting to run their own summer courses, rather than just letting out their buildings, and an increasing number of them are opting for EFL accreditation. With the growing importance of CLIL-style provision, the trend for boarding school providers to become accredited is likely to increase.

At least for the foreseeable future, they are likely to remain the top performing sector on inspection and while the private language operators still retain a stranglehold on the top 2% of our rankings, they may have to look to their laurels.

Top accredited boarding schools

Out of 26 accredited boarding schools, 14, just over half, score within four points of each other:

13 points: Bishopstrow College, Millfield Summer School, St Edmund’s College

12 points: Harrow Short Courses, Heathfield International Summer School

11 points: Buckswood Overseas Summer School (BOSS); Concord College; King’s, London

10 points: Bede’s Summer School, King’s Brighton, King’s Oxford, Sherborne International, St Clares, Stonyhurst

Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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