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To board or not to board?

Could boarding school be the best thing for your child? Muddy talks to Rebecca Eves, Houseparent at Port Regis School, to find out why boarding for prep school kids is, well, a whole load of fun

Boarding – flexi, weekly and full – is going from strength to strength at prep school level, but what is it about modern boarding that makes it so popular even in 2020, when we are well beyond the days of wealthy landowners living far from great schools or aspirational Victorians wanting to keep up with the Joneses? Surely boarding schools are havens of sobbing, snoring, bed-wetting pre-teens huddling together in freezing dorms and hiding from Trunchbull and The Chokey?

Um, no actually. Inspired by Hogwarts and St Trinian’s and just a glimpse of the facilities (Soho Farmhouse meets Eurocamp meets Disney), switched-on kids want to live the dream of midnight feasts and endless sleepovers, while for parents a seriously good education often in an idyllic cricket-in-the-quad setting (without the stress of homework) beckons for their little darlings. And so, the draw of boarding school thrives – for some it might be a necessity, with parents abroad or travelling, for others a status symbol, the next thing to be bought after the Model X Tesla and a sure route (they hope) into the Establishment. Yet for others, myself included, it is about choosing the place they would like their child to grow up in – a place they can climb trees, play sport until they drop and have the very best in both academic and pastoral care. With mobile phones allowed (and snuck into the dorms at night), illegal tuck (I’ve heard stories of kids ordering pizza from the local takeaway to be delivered to the squash courts) and flexi boarding, it can be about friendship, freedom and growing up in, dare I say it, a more innocent world.

To find out more, we put the question to Rebecca Eves, Houseparent at Port Regis: could boarding school be the best thing for your child?

Rebecca is the Head of Lower School, a Year 4 form tutor and Head of Girls. She also runs the senior girls’ boarding House, Grosvenor, where she lives with her husband and two small children. In her spare time (she doesn’t have much!) she enjoys reading, running and occasionally playing netball. She also loves walking her dog, Skye, who is much loved by the girls in the boarding House.

Tell me about how boarding works at Port Regis. What percentage of children (of what age) board? How does your flexi-boarding/occasional boarding work?

We have four boarding Houses: Huxley (girls in years 3 – 6), Talbot (boys in years 3 – 6), Grosvenor (girls in years 7 and 8) and Prichard (boys in years 7 and 8). In the earlier years, our percentage of boarders is lower; however, as you move through the school the percentage of boarders increases significantly with the vast majority of children in years 7 and 8 boarding.

We have a boarding system where children can either be ‘full’ boarders or ‘local’ boarders (2 nights a week of their choosing with their own dedicated bed). Even within the full boarding option, those children who live close enough, can spend some evenings and weekends at home.

We have a very supportive, highly committed boarding team. Each boarding House has two Houseparents and the senior boarding Houses also have a Housemother. Our Housemothers add an additional layer of pastoral support. Their role includes much of the nuts and bolts of boarding House life focusing on wake ups, laundry, lost property, contacting parents when needed and carrying out day duties in the Houses before handing over to the Houseparents in the evening. All Houses have resident Gap students as well.

We also have a 24-hour, 7 days a week Health Centre staffed by three highly competent and experienced registered nurses who are on call for general medical advice or emergencies, overseen by our School Doctor.

What are the main benefits of prep-school boarding? 

Boarding at a Prep school is a fantastic experience that helps children to develop independence and gain confidence, whilst building life-long friendships. Many of our children go on to senior schools where they will board so Prep school boarding offers the opportunity to experience this as well as getting used to being away from home at their own pace, especially with our different boarding options. It also gives the children the opportunity to access the wide variety of extra-curricular opportunities on offer at Port Regis which often take place outside normal school hours. It also means time to relax and socialise with their friends, rather than a journey home at the end of a busy day.

How are weekends filled? What sort of activities are on offer? 

With over seventy boarders in School (more on busy weekends), every weekend is great fun at Port Regis. We aim to provide a careful balance of free time and planned activities to keep the children entertained and happy.

Every weekend has themed events, dances, games, competitions, outings and opportunities to do something different. We have a wide variety of activities on offer. Sometimes we take trips out: Splashdown, the cinema, paint balling, pottery painting or Longleat to name but a few. We also make the most of our wonderful grounds and facilities with fun swims, den building, go-karting, dog walking (usually followed by a warming hot chocolate by the fire in the Old Assembly Hall), cookery, bike riding and a wide range of arts and craft activities. Laser tag is a real favourite at the moment which is great because it can be played inside or out. Pet Corner is also a very popular activity with the children enjoying spending some time with our resident rabbit and guinea pigs. There is also the opportunity to simply relax and chill in the boarding houses: reading, chatting, playing games or tackling the latest challenging jigsaw puzzle.

Unlike many other boarding Prep schools, we never close at weekends or exeats, something that our overseas and military parents in particular greatly appreciate.

How do you ensure successful integration between boarders and day pupils? Can cliques develop? 

As with any group of children there is the potential for cliques to develop; however, we work hard to prevent the boarding and day divide. Our senior boarding Houses are open for the children during longer break periods and of course, the day children are as welcome back to the boarding Houses as the boarders are. We have a number of local children who are boarders some nights but go home on others so there is lots of fluidity between the day and boarding children. In addition, we have ‘Big Weekends’ where the boarding Houses are open to all day children; these are hugely popular and very well attended. In a similar way, many of our day children or local boarders invite the full boarders out for weekends and trips. 

Can boarding school be a source of fun and friendship, or is it often one of loneliness and rejection?

We think that our boarding Houses are such welcoming, family-orientated places that the children really feel a sense of fun and friendship. Obviously everyone has times when they feel homesick or lonely and it can be hard, especially for our overseas boarders when they are a long way from home. However, we have very strong support networks in the boarding Houses and across the School as a whole, so we are able to quickly help those feeling homesick to get involved and feel more positive again. The children are so good at supporting one another and you can guarantee that if someone is feeling a bit below par they are quickly scooped up and supported by the other children around them.

What systems are in place for the boarders to communicate with parents / teachers / pastoral house parents?

Each boarding House has phones for parents to phone in on and for children to phone out too. There are also computers for email communications and Skype. We don’t allow mobile phones as they are tricky to police in the era of smartphones. Our full boarders are allowed one when traveling though.

There are lots of opportunities for children to communicate with teachers and Houseparents, from tutor times every morning, break times and also lunch when all teachers sit with the children. There are times every evening for the children to talk to their Houseparents, Housemother or Gap and there is always lots of communication between academic and pastoral staff to ensure that everyone is kept informed, to best support the children.

There is also lots of communication between tutors/Houseparents and parents to keep them up to speed with what is going on at School. Sometimes it may just be a quick photo of the children joining in with an activity at the weekend or it might be more detailed feedback. This all helps parents to feel involved and keep those lines of communication open.

Is it true that boarding can actually make for a more harmonious family life? While children miss their parents a lot of the grunt of parenting is done at school, so weekends and holidays can be the fun stuff with family….

Boarding can form an integral part of managing modern family life. We can be the ones to chase up the late Prep, missing school bag/sports top/school shoes and deal with the mid-week school demands. Even relatively simple things like knowing that the uniform is all washed and sorted at school is one less thing for parents to worry about! Once the day-to-day friction is removed, parents can really enjoy quality family time with their children when they are together. It can also make financial sense if you take into account transport and childcare costs.

In your experience, is it the children or the parents that drive the journey to boarding school? 

There are obviously families where work commitments or overseas positions are the predominate reason for boarding. However, we are increasingly seeing children being the main instigator for boarding. Sometimes it’s the ‘Harry Potter’ effect but usually it’s because they have friends who are boarding, they see how enjoyable it is and want to follow suit. We also see this with the transition from our local boarding option to full boarding. A number of children who start local boarding then love it and decide they want to move to full boarding.

Do people still have an old-fashioned idea of what boarding school is all about? Tell us about modern boarding.

I would say come and visit a modern boarding school before they make that judgement! 21st century boarding is all about giving children access to a breadth of opportunity, building their confidence and independence, enabling them to learn crucial life skills in preparation not just for senior school but for their lives beyond. Boarders can take advantage of additional non-classroom contact time with teachers in the evenings as well as supervised prep and extra music practice time. It also gives them the opportunity to try more extra-curricular activities, helping them to develop their range of interests.

Many parents do still have that old fashioned view of boarding though – hard beds, no heating and bad food! However, modern boarding is so far removed from that. Boarding facilities are of such a high standard now and here at Port Regis much thought and considerable investment have gone into making the boarding Houses a home-from-home experience. The children are encouraged to make their space theirs with photos, posters, decorations and even fairy lights. My boarding house is positively awash with colour and light!

Activities are designed around the interests of the children and the whole boarding experience is very much child-centred. New initiatives are introduced all the time to keep pace with the needs of modern children; for example we have ‘Mindfulness Monday’ every week in our House. The staff are dedicated to supporting the children and providing that family atmosphere. Even after a busy day’s teaching, I love walking into the boarding House and spending the time with the girls and there is a real buzz and sense of enjoyment.

Who might boarding school not be suitable for?

The flexibility that boarding now offers opens it up to all pupils. I completely understand that some of our pupils want to go home each evening but the ability to board a couple of nights a week, and to be able to pick those nights which work best for the pupil and the family, really does open it up to all pupils to board in a way that works for them. 

Anything else, before we have to sit on our tuck boxes to close them? The Hogwarts Express is waiting…

If you or your child are thinking about boarding, I would really recommend that you go and visit some schools and take a look at the boarding facilities and talk to the boarding staff. Personally, I am very proud of the boarding experience here at Port Regis and it is a real privilege to be part of the boarding community.

Book now for their Open Morning Sat 8 February, 9.30-11.30am.

Port Regis, Shaftesbury, Wilts SP7 9QA. Tel: 01747 857800. Email: admissions@portregis.comportregis.com

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