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Back to the future with state boarding

Dr Chris Pyle looks at how the tide is turning for state boarding schools in the UK

Posted by Stephanie Broad | July 09, 2015 | School life

Most academies work hard to extend their reach well beyond 3:30pm; boarding represents the ultimate extended day. Most of the 38 state boarding schools in England and Wales are academies. Tuition is free, as state schools, and fees are charged for the cost of boarding. Fees are typically between £9,000 and £14,000 per year – a third of the cost of independent boarding schools.

In past decades, the number of state schools incorporating boarding dwindled but over the past five years the trend has been reversed. The rise of boarding academies is a quiet but powerful trend.


Boarding at Lancaster Royal Grammar School is not new. In fact, evidence for the first boarder at the school dates back as far as the 13th century. In the 21st century academy, younger pupils share dorms of four to six, while sixth formers are in single rooms. There is structured ‘prep’ time in the evenings, as well as much sport and activity of every kind.

Two-thirds of our 160 boarders live within an hour of the school. Others come from across the country, and 25 from overseas. Boarders in state schools must have EU passports or right of UK residence. Bilingual or ex-pat families from Europe and the Middle East and boarders from Hong Kong are all typical. Communication with parents is the aspect which has changed most in recent years: “I Skype my dad twice a day,” an overseas boarder told me recently.

Boarding fits modern life for many families: the realities of commuting, travel commitments, divided families, or older siblings away at university. A mother bringing up her son on her own told me how boarding is allowing her to start a small business, while he benefits from positive role models and support. “We have the best weekends ever!” said the parents of another weekly boarder.


The boarding academies are a diverse group, united by belief in the opportunities they provide. Wymondham College in Norfolk with 650 boarders is comprehensive and coeducational, as are Sexey’s in Somerset and Keswick School amongst others. Others are single sex and selective, including Reading School and RGS High Wycombe as well as Lancaster RGS.

Some have a very distinctive outlook. The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover is fully boarding and is sponsored by the Ministry of Defence. At Hockerill Anglo-European College in Hertfordshire, an international ethos runs through every aspect of the school.


Several academies have recently added boarding in order to meet demand, extend choice and offer students a stepping stone to university. In Lincolnshire, for example, the Priory Academy opened places for 60 boarders in 2012 and King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth, will open new Sixth Form provision in September 2015.

Two new state boarding schools are sponsored by independent schools. Wellington Academy in Wiltshire added 100 boarding places on conversion in 2010 under the sponsorship of Wellington College. More recently, Holyport College opened as a free school in 2014 with Eton College as sole sponsor, and with free school meals as a priority admissions criterion.

Former independent schools are another type of new addition. Liverpool College was a founding school of the Headmaster’s Conference, before becoming an academy in 2013. Polam Hall School, County Durham, and the Royal Wolverhampton School are two other independent boarding schools currently in the process of re-opening as free schools.



Harefield Academy, Hillingdon, introduced boarding in 2011 in part to help children whose home lives lack the structure that boarding’s wrap-around support can offer. Harefield’s boarding house is named after Lord Adonis. The Labour peer was in care as a child before receiving a local education authority grant to attend a boarding school. As Schools Minister, Lord Adonis was a founder of the academies programme; he is also an advocate of boarding for vulnerable young people.

All boarding academies have seen boarding benefit pupils with families in crisis. Charitable foundations such as the Royal National Children’s Foundation and Buttle UK provide assistance with costs for some of these. For children on the edge of care, there is a wider social and economic argument which has not yet been won.

There would often be an advantage to the taxpayer in providing supportive boarding environments for young people, rather than bearing the much larger costs of failure when things go wrong.


Boarding brings significant benefits to the wider school. After-school activities flourish in a residential environment with zero commuting. Opportunities are academic as well as extra-curricular: for example, sixth-form boarders are key in running our after-school homework club for younger pupils.

Secondly, a boarding ethos can develop the whole school community. When a significant proportion of students know teachers out of hours as well, the relational depth of the community is strengthened.

Thirdly, it connects pupils to the world. The most powerful assembly I heard this year was from a boarder who grew up in Syria, speaking about the war’s impact on his extended family. One of our day pupils travelled to China with his family last summer, and met up with a boarding classmate who was back home in Shanghai. He was a friend rather than a tourist, and the world became a smaller and more welcoming place.


The two areas most likely to continue to grow are Sixth Form provision, and boarding as a means for academies to multiply their support for vulnerable pupils. Capital costs will often be a major impediment, however. Lancaster Royal Grammar School was unusual in being permitted to take out a commercial loan some years ago to develop our boarding accommodation.

The Secretary of State should extend this freedom to allow all academies to make a business case based on fee income, to borrow money for investment in boarding facilities.

State boarding is a radical, 'back to the future' answer to some of the challenges of modern life. Boarding allows the potential of our people and buildings to overflow the confines of the traditional school day. It has much further potential to benefit students, families, schools and communities.

Dr Chris Pyle is Headteacher at Lancaster Royal Grammar School: 

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