The benefits of prep school boarding

Posted on 20th Apr 2020 in School News, Boarding, Prep Schools Guide

Robert Lankester, Headmaster of Maidwell Hall, looks at why boarding works and when is the best age to start...

Say goodbye to the school runs, to endless testing and tutoring, to mobile phones (at least in some prep schools) and chauffeuring increasingly frustrated children to endless after school clubs. Instead say hello to climbing trees, muddy knees and a carefree childhood. Have you ever thought about boarding? There are definitely many pros and therefore many questions to answer.

There is no doubt that a country education beckons with all the freedoms, space and time that this brings. We used to live in an age where children could play in the streets and explore with their friends, having a level of independence that is now proven to build resilience, individuality and good mental health. However, these days many social factors have created a world that prohibits children from enjoying these activities and subsequent benefits, forcing parents to consistently ‘helicopter’ them.

We therefore find ourselves in a position where a boarding school can significantly enhance childhood, giving children the independence to play with their friends and a freedom that undoubtedly helps them to develop and enjoy those early years as they’re supposed to, with all the positive mental and physical health attributes that this entails.

There is no doubt that learning some of the harder lessons in life in your childhood is natural and gives you an emotional resilience that is harder to learn later in life. For example, decision making; it’s very easy for parents to consistently make decisions for their children, trying desperately to make life easier. Except that it doesn’t; parents just become exhausted and the children can become ‘flaky’ and disinclined to commit to anything.

By teaching children how to make informed decisions themselves we are helping them greatly. At a boarding school children have much greater independence and sense of their own responsibilities, if this can develop in a homely and comforting atmosphere then the result should be children learning such life enhancing skills as this ... without even realising it.

So, it is clear that there are many benefits to boarding, but when is the ideal time to start and which type of boarding should you choose? There are many prep schools now offering flexi-boarding or a transitional arrangement. This makes it easier because there can then be a gradual escalation to full boarding rather than doing it in one leap. It is also easier for children to be part of the decision making. However, do be aware that part-time boarding does not always offer all the benefits mentioned.

Another big question is: When is the right age to board and is homesickness an issue? Of course, the age to start must be based on the family’s circumstance and the child’s personality. For example, there are still plenty of eight-year-old full boarders, and it is remarkable how quickly they adjust. It is certainly not my experience that younger children are more homesick than the older children. In fact, we see very little homesickness and it’s an emotion that can be felt at any age; many adults experience overwhelming homesickness when they go to university. It is not possible to insulate children forever and learning how to handle difficult emotions are all life skills that are best developed in childhood.

Over the past twenty years there has been a steady trend towards children boarding at a slightly older age. Children who wish to board at their Senior Schools routinely join boarding prep schools for one year only or even a term or two.However excellent the pastoral care at senior schools, you cannot replicate the small, cosy, nurturing feel of a small prep school, surely a softer and better way to settle into boarding life.

So when is the right time to board? When it suits your family arrangements, when your child is ready for it (and preferably clamouring for it!) and in my opinion, the sooner the better.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2020, which you can read here: