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  • Jimmy Beale

The advantages of a boarding education well away from London or the UK’s big cities

When supporting international families as they seek to place their child at the right boarding school here in the UK, it is often suggested by parents that the chosen school must “be in London, or certainly somewhere near it….”.

Is this a statement, a demand or is it a question? I have always treated it as the latter and usually make the point that a boarding education beyond London or any of our larger conurbations might very well be the best option for their child.

Many of the schools The English Education works closely with can certainly be described as ‘rural’. Even those on the edge of towns and smaller cities are nestled in delightfully green swathes of campus – at The English Education, we promote educational settings which offer so much more than just classroom excellence.

David Milner, Director of Marketing and International Relations at Sedbergh School in Yorkshire, puts it rather well.

“Children can be children when well away from the temptations and distractions of urban life. Running in the fells, swimming in the rivers, and a shopping trip to the local sweet shop are highlights of a Sedberghian education – even for our oldest pupils. It would be all too easy for a sceptic to see this lifestyle as old-fashioned and not suitable preparation for the lives our children face in the future but those who live and breathe this know this is not the reality. The values of humility, ambition, resilience and kindness are timeless, not traditional; they transcend time and space and if our children leave here safe in the knowledge that they have these skills, the lack of an urban influence ceases to be of relevance.”

Life during a global pandemic has taught us to re-evaluate our lives. Much has been made of a shift towards developing stronger family values, making the most of fresh air and a healthy lifestyle and we have all had to learn how to adapt; all part of the fabric of our best boarding schools. And yet that does not mean such schools cannot be at the forefront of cutting-edge educational development, with pupils benefiting from world-class pedagogical vision. The shift to remote learning was managed with reluctant ease as the infrastructures and skills were already in place. As David points out, Shakespeare came alive through a live stream of The Globe theatre, but as that was part of the daily diet of an education in a remote setting, the ability to adapt was simple.

Picture: Sedbergh School in Cumbria, North West England

The closer that a school’s ethos is to that of full boarding allows pupils the time to pursue a myriad of activities. When a good proportion of the community remains on site, time ceases to be hurried and rushed - pupils can achieve so much more in a full-boarding day than when the school empties and changes in nature as day children head home. Our rural boarding schools have, to varying degrees, stuck to the model of a full-boarding timetable, and that is a great strength.

Lifelong friendships are forged through the act of doing and being. A busy, carefully managed balanced day (and evening) allows pupils the opportunity to pursue their interests and their passions surrounded by other likeminded children. An ethos of compassion and support does not replace family life but is merely an extension of the love and warmth felt in family dynamics at home.

Matthew Radley, Second Master at a leading co-educational boarding school in the south-west of England, writes of the advantages for pupils attending Blundell’s School:

“Devon is not simply a fantastic place to live, it is also a great place to go to boarding school. There are some obvious advantages, such as the absence of the distractions and temptations provided by proximity to London, or other large cities. It is also certainly the case that pupils and parents alike greatly appreciate the fresh air, open spaces, and gentler pace of life we experience in Devon. At a time when there is, rightly, an ever-growing focus on adolescent mental health and wellbeing, the advantages of our location in this regard should be self-evident. People in this part of the world are also known for their warmth and this is certainly reflected in the strength of the relationships we see within the school, fostered by the Boarding House system which is central to our ethos. Pupils are genuinely known and cared for as individuals, and in this we can also be grateful for our safe, secure campus, surrounded by gentle hills and green space.”

Pupils at Blundell’s are very lucky to be so close to a huge range of sought-after locations and exciting experiences. On any given weekend pupils might be found surfing in North Devon, sailing on Wimbleball Lake, camping out in the woods, working on their orienteering skills on Dartmoor, or simply enjoying an afternoon’s shopping in Exeter, a small city viewed as one of the UK’s ‘best kept secrets’, and only twenty-five minutes from school. Having such an array of opportunities and experiences so easily accessible means that rural boarding school leaders can be genuinely thoughtful about how best to utilise them. Outdoor activities are a key element of the rural boarding school experience, not just because the pupils love them (which they do), but because they help pupils to develop resilience and resourcefulness and, more simply, to learn the joy of discovery.

There is another major advantage for schools fortunate to be in such great locations; being based away from the hustle and bustle of cities Blundell’s and Sedbergh, alongside other rural boarding schools, are able to attract a truly outstanding staff body. Teachers are diverse, talented and committed, and they allow schools to be thoughtful and progressive in all that they do. Inspirational teachers focus not just on learning, but on the process of learning, and as a result many of The English Education’s Guaranteed member schools consistently rank among the top schools in the country for value-added data. The quality of staff enables truly exceptional provision in sports, music and the dramatic arts, with a seemingly endless range of opportunity on tap, and on tap not merely for those who are gifted in that particular area.

Rural is not remote – being away from urban influences may sound as if schools are cut-off from society, but the reality is pleasingly different. Rural does not mean that boarding schools are isolated or stuck in the past; while the scenery is unchanged, nestled within it are schools as progressive and dynamic as you will find anywhere in London or any city.


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