Boarding schools are not always  Hogwarts for 'posh' kids

Boarding schools are not always Hogwarts for 'posh' kids

4th October 2013


BOARDING school isn’t always a Hogwarts-esque place for 'posh' kids. A handful of schools in England offer boarding combined with high quality state education, and one of the best is in North Yorkshire.

As Hannah Crowther and Bridie Smith head to their next lesson at Ripon Grammar School, a notice prompts them to switch off the lights – and their music and their hair straighteners.

It's the kind of parental reminder dished out every morning, but in this case it's a sign on the wall of Johnson House, Hannah and Bridie's home from home Monday to Friday.

The 16-year-olds are among 67 boarders, including nine who are full time, at Ripon Grammar. But this is no conventional independent boarding school with fees of £25,000 plus per year.

With its Victorian brick clock tower and 23 acres of grounds with tennis courts and pristine pitches, it looks to all intents and purposes like a fee-paying school. But Ripon Grammar is the only state maintained boarding school in Yorkshire and one of only 36 in England, a disparate group of city and rural, co-ed and single sex, academies and comprehensives, at the top of and lower down the league tables that combine state education with paid-for boarding.

At Ripon, pupils get to experience boarding in a beautiful cathedral city and benefit from education at Yorkshire's highest performing state secondary school – but all at a fraction of the price of the independent sector, typically around £9,000 a year.

Marita Murray, deputy headteacher and head of boarding at the Grammar School, says: “Pupils board for a variety of reasons according to their family circumstances. For parents of girls it’s often about giving them the experience of being away from home before they go to university.

“We also have military families whose children remain with us when parents are posted overseas, families with demanding jobs that require a lot of foreign travel, and we’re getting more enquiries from families moving across from the independent sector, perhaps because of financial pressures.

“But we also have many children whose homes are in the county but are too far away to travel back and forth every day, and students who join us in the sixth form.”

Geography, and specifically the scale of North Yorkshire, is why Ripon Grammar began offering boarding in the first place. For children living in outlying villages and on farms, boarding meant they had equal opportunity to access high quality education.

Hannah and Bridie are both from Kirby Moorside. Bridie explains: “It was easier for our friends to stay where they are and a bit harder for us leaving to come here on our own. But we’ve ended up being more pleased with our choice and our old friends are a bit bored now. They miss us, but we’re so busy we’ve hardly got time to think about it.”

Jess Butterell, 17, is from Skipton and in the sixth form studying A levels in religious studies, history and English literature having started at Ripon aged 11.

It would take me an hour to get here from home,” she explains. “It was quite daunting when I first came because I didn’t really know anyone but I settled in quickly. I’ve made a lot close friends in boarding that I wouldn’t have made as a day pupil, and the prospect of going to university isn’t nearly so daunting now.”

For Rachael Pond it was about finding a good school but also one that offered boarding as she is from Bridlington.

Annie Fry, 13, who also comes from Skipton, adds: “My mum travels a lot with work, plus it’s easier for me to board. Everyone is really close and friendly here.”

Ripon Grammar is selective, with children in year 6, many from local primaries, sitting the 11-plus entrance exam in September. Whereas opting to board may once have been a way to secure a place, that’s no longer the case.

“We get very genuine boarders," explains Marita. "Parents commit for five years, which is important because it creates stability in the boarding houses. That’s particularly reassuring for those parents who are out of the country and need to know their child is safe and well cared for.

The number of boarders currently accounts for less than ten per cent of the whole school, but it is currently receiving around 20 enquiries a week and there is capacity to grow significantly if demand continues.

“To us, boarding is at the heart of Ripon Grammar, not an add on,” says Marita. “At some schools it can be like a Travel Lodge tacked on the side, but for it is fully integrated into school.”

For the boys, integration is literal, since their boarding house, grade II listed School House, forms part of the main school building; they even have direct access to the library on an evening which is ideal for homework, and for contacting parents via the internet. Not only that, but the team of dedicated boarding staff includes a chemist, a historian and a biologist, so there’s plenty of help at hand.

Elliott Mountain’s home is only ten miles away in Harrogate, but his mum travels the world with work. Having lived in Chile and Canada, the 11-year-old is used to different environments. “I thought boarding would be fun and it means I get all my homework done,” he says.

Certainly boarding seems to have a positive impact on academic results; far from performance dwindling due to being away from home, boarders typically excel.

A typical day starts with breakfast at 8am. Other than sixth formers, they aren’t allowed back into the boarding house during the day, ensuring that school and ‘home’ are separate in the same way as they are for day pupils.

When lessons finish at 3.55pm they register, choose from the snack counter, then have free time to watch TV or play computer games in the boarders’ lounges, go running or join one of the school’s many sporting clubs until 6pm when tea is served by the boarders’ dedicated catering team, with a student rota for cleaning up afterwards. Then it’s prep until 8pm.

Activities organised by the house parents include ice skating, bowling, theatre, cinema and other trips out. The boarders also have exclusive use of the school swimming pool one night a week and can use the gym and other sports facilities.

Twm Stone, 17, from Oswaldkirk, near Helmsley, says: “You can join pretty much any club you want to so there are even more opportunities for boarders. We looked at independent schools but decided this was better.”

Tong-Yi Chan, 16, from Harrogate, adds: “I didn’t really need to board but it is convenient and this way I’m constantly with my friends and am more independent.

“When I go home at weekends I leave school behind, then when I’m back at school somehow I value my parents and home more.”

Dominic Edwards, 15, who went to primary school in Ampleforth, believes boarding will help him in his chosen career. “I have to organise my time myself which makes me more independent and I think that will be a help in a military career,” he explains.

Another who’s used to travelling is Mofe Omatsone, 17, who’s from Milton Keynes and has also lived in Nigeria. “Location isn’t a problem for me and I’ve boarded before. I’d never been north though, so this was a change for me, a chance to get to know another part of the country." Other students have come from London, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Younger pupils share accommodation, either in twin rooms or cleverly designed rooms of four beds, each with their own furniture and walls to personalise with pictures. Sixth formers can share or opt for single rooms. Bathrooms are close by and laundry is done for them.

There is a continual programme of improvement, with £162,000 invested in the last three years in new furniture and soft furnishings. It's a far cry from once-a-week bathing, matron doing her rounds in a white coat and the coin-slot telephone rooms of yesteryear.

All in all there is no appreciable difference between state boarding at Ripon and the independent sector, a feeling confirmed by Tabitha Milton, 11, from Helperby, who joined from Cundall Manor Independent School, near York. “It’s a change for me, and this is a really good school. I like sport and now I’ve got new friends here it’s good.”

The friendships made by boarders appear to be strong and long-lasting – the proportion of Old Riponian boarders, who include broadcaster Richard Hammond, returning to school events is high.

Marita adds: “We want pupils to enjoy the boarding experience, and so many being keen to return is an indication that they leave here with good memories. As staff, that’s what we want for all the children.”

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