Boarding Schools in the UK. Harmful to Students or a Really Good Idea?


  1. Boarding schools: A very British invention
  2. Types of boarding school in the UK
  3. What is boarding school like in the UK?
  4. What age is best for boarding school?
  5. How much does boarding school cost?
  6. Is boarding school harmful to students?
  7. The pros and cons of boarding school


Residential schools in the UK have been around since the middle ages, but what remains of those archaic institutions today? What do modern-day British boarding schools look like and how does it feel to attend one? Get familiar with all the boarding school basics and find out if they are unrivalled centres for academic excellence or outmoded breeding grounds for bullies once and for all.   


Boarding schools: A very British invention


Nowadays, a boarding school can simply be described as a residential school where students live and study during the school year. You will find more boarding schools in the United Kingdom than in other parts of the world – mostly due to the fact that we Brits arguably invented the whole idea. 💡

Some of the grisly myths about boarding schools including long dark corridors, secret societies with initiation rituals, gruel for breakfast and corporal punishment – although unrepresentative of today’s British boarding schools – can be traced back to very real beginnings. 

The rigorous British approach to education dates back to the middle ages. Founded in the year 597, King’s School in Canterbury was one of the first institutions – a cloistered religious establishment where students devoted themselves to religious contemplation. Under the strict instruction of the clergy, there were 14 chapel services each day. The main focus of study was Latin grammar – the language of the church – giving rise to the now widely used term “grammar school”. ⛪

Slowly, over hundreds of years, traditions changed and society called for new forms of knowledge. The 16th century Reformation era saw schools removed from the authority of the church and the curriculum updated to include debate, criminal law and logic for the first time – important skills for a country increasingly organised around the demands of a market economy. 

In the 17th century, female students were slowly granted access to education too with boarding schools for girls being founded in towns albeit offering limited curricula of writing, music, and needlework.

In the 18th century – with Britain moving into the age of empire and industry – students were learning modern languages, political leadership, military theory, and commerce. The offspring of officers and administrators of the Empire attended boarding school while their parents fulfilled political and military postings overseas. 🇬🇧

Over the course of the 20th century, British boarding schools remained but thankfully some of the more archaic approaches to discipline, academia and emotional wellbeing did not. Today, many UK boarding schools fill their original, centuries-old buildings with excellent facilities and a modern approach to teaching for a great all-round student experience. 🎓


Types of boarding school in the UK


With approximately 500 boarding and independent schools across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the options can seem overwhelming. What’s more, the question of co-educational versus single-sex will also be a factor to consider.

First, let’s take a look at the different types of boarding schools that you can find in the UK. They can be split across three stages with children attending from the age of four until 18. 

Preparatory school 1️⃣

Also referred to as primary school, infant school, junior school or pre-preparatory school – these schools cover primary education, so that’s children aged four or five up to 11 or 13. 

Secondary school 2️⃣

Secondary education is for students aged 11 or 13 to 16. You might hear this referred to as high school or senior school. Between 14 and 16, students will undertake either GCSEs, Standard grades and Intermediates or the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme depending on location and institution.

Sixth form 3️⃣

Sixth form – often referred to as Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth – makes up the last two years of secondary school. Between 16 and 18, students will undertake either A-levels, Standard Grades and Highers or the International Baccalaureate exams depending on location and institution.


What is boarding school like in the UK?


Most UK boarding schools teach international students alongside local UK students making for a diverse and interesting experience for everyone. 

However, according to the Financial Times, boarding schools in the UK have been facing an “identity crisis” in recent years. With the average cost of attendance increasing by almost 50% in the last decade, the British upper-middle classes – the doctors and lawyers among us – can no longer afford the fees, leaving it to the super-rich to fill the spaces. 💳

By contrast, the demand from overseas students has rocketed. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), the percentage of overseas boarders has increased from fewer than a third of total boarders to more than 40% since the turn of the century. This financial pressure has led to school closures as well as overseas buyouts with Chinese companies Wanda Group and Bright Scholar also acquiring British schools.

For some students, particularly those studying internationally, it is necessary to stay at the school for the entirety of the academic year, for others, it’s more convenient to head home every weekend. Today’s UK boarding schools offer parents a choice of full boarding, weekly boarding, flexi boarding or a combination. 🏠

  • Accommodation 🛌

At a boarding school, students live together with other students in a boarding house. Girls and boys stay in separate accommodation. There is normally at least one house parent who lives on the premises too – they are there to look after students and care for their needs. 

Young boarders normally share a bedroom or dormitory with other children whereas older boarders tend to share with just one other student or have their own private bedroom. Depending on the school, students might have their own bathroom or washing facilities and most boarding houses have communal areas where students can relax, socialise and watch television. 

  • Holidays 🏖️

Boarding schools usually close for the summer and Christmas holidays and students return home to their families. For the shorter half-term holidays, some schools stay open and deliver activities such as language courses and events. 

  • Culture 🤝

Ethos and traditions of UK boarding schools can vary enormously. In some, school uniform is optional, students may call staff by their first names, plan their own curriculum, and opt-out of team sports. In others, tradition dictates that special uniforms are worn for formal occasions, students are called by their surnames, everyone learns Latin, and representing the school team is mandatory. However, most schools fall somewhere in between these two extremes.


What age is best for boarding school?


There is no perfect age to send your child to boarding school or a one-size-fits-all approach to answering this question. Every child is individual and only you and your child will be able to work out what is best for them together.👨‍👧

However, there are a few guiding principles that you can bear in mind if you are weighing up your options and thinking about when it might be best to enroll your child at a boarding school in the UK. 

Many parents choose Year 5 – that’s about age 9 – as the best time to start prep school boarding. This is about the same time that students begin to be grouped by ability. Entry at this stage will also give your child an opportunity to get used to different study expectations and habits before the first sets of National Curriculum Tests like their SATs or the Common Entrance exams for those moving on to a secondary school. 📚


How much does boarding school cost? 


Fees for UK boarding schools vary greatly. Students that go home at the weekends tend to pay a minimum of £12,000 annually whereas full boarder fees can be anything from £20,000 right up to £50,000 per year for each child. 

Boarding fees generally cover items such as accommodation, food and laundry. In addition to fees, there will be other costs to budget for including uniforms, sports gear, trips and outings, individual music lessons and course books. 🤺🎻

Remember, you may be able to fund your child’s studies with a scholarship or bursary. It is always worth asking the schools that you are interested in what sorts of financial support they can offer.


Is boarding school harmful to students?


British boarding schools have a strong reputation for academic success, providing stacks of extracurricular activity and generally getting the best out of students. But this intensive, results-driven environment can have some serious disadvantages.

Although many English boarding schools suggest that living and studying away from home fosters independence at a young age, for some, the reality is a total lack of autonomy. 

A typical day in the average UK boarding school starts at 7 am, includes a compulsory trip to the Chapel, mandatory engagement with some form of sport, supervised homework, roll-calls, communal dining and a strict lights-out at 10 pm policy. 🙇‍♀️

Children that have enjoyed a level of privacy before starting at boarding school, benefit from time alone or lean towards independent activity will have a hard time adjusting to the constant company and ongoing requirement to share spaces and facilities. 🛁

British boarding schools also have a long association with producing the political leaders and financial elite of tomorrow. Seen by some families as centres of socialisation, residential schools in the UK can engender what Peter Cookson & Caroline Hodges (1985) term as "deep structure socialization" – whereby students internalize a strong sense of entitlement and social control or hierarchy. 🤨

According to Cookson and Shweder’s “The Child: An Encyclopedic Companion”, the boarding school experience can encourage the development of a myriad of physiological issues including hyper-competitiveness, depression and anxiety sometimes leading to the use of recreational or illegal drugs and in worst cases, suicide or its attempt.

What’s more, single-sex education and its inherently rigid gender stratification has been found to have negative effects on boarding schools students’ perceptions of gender and social roles later in life.

Lastly, therapists have clustered a set of negative learned behaviours and emotional states that come about from the boarding school experience as “Boarding School Syndrome”. These can include depression, difficulties in forming relationships, and emotional numbness. 😟


The pros and cons of boarding school


Residential schools in the UK can vary significantly – from accommodation to location, specialist subjects and facilities right through to culture and ethos. Making the right decision for you and your child will take time, research and consideration. 

In the meantime, here is a summary of the most common pros and cons associated with boarding schools in the UK. 

Pros 👍

Cons 👎

Smaller class size

Feelings of homesickness, loneliness, abandonment or bereavement 

Greater variety of extra-curricular activities

Gender stratification leading to unhealthy relationships

Dedicated teaching staff always on hand

Increased pressure to succeed academically  

More independence at an earlier stage

Old-fashioned rules and expectations 

Scheduled timetable with fewer distractions

Very little opportunity to enjoy private time alone

Stronger alumni networks

Difficult to escape from bullying

Highly international environment

Strong sense of entitlement due to deep structure socialization


Whatever path you choose for your child, we are here to help them reach their full potential. Book a free trial with one of our GoStudent tutors and start paving the way to academic success today!