In 2019, the Financial Times wrote an article on what it called the “identity crisis of UK boarding schools”, i.e. traditional private boarding schools attended mostly by daughters and sons of very wealthy families. Considered an institution of the British school system and culture, they have always been associated with very rigorous high-level teaching, from which the formation of the country’s ruling class begins. However, things have changed for some time: it depends above all on the ever higher costs and the rigidity of an educational model that today is perceived by critics as outdated and even unnecessarily cruel.
Boarding schools are school complexes where girls and boys can study and live from a very young age, from 4-5 years (when primary school begins) to 16-18 (when secondary school ends). There are around 500 boarding schools of this type across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, often split between boys and girls. There are also public ones, but most are private: they require the payment of a very high tuition fee which includes room, board and lessons, and teach subjects that are held in high esteem by the most prestigious universities, including mathematics, science, history , theatre, literature and foreign languages.
For example, twenty of the 57 British prime ministers attended Eton College, which is considered the best-known and most prestigious private high school in the United Kingdom, where Prince William and Prince Harry, among others, also studied.
Until a few decades ago private boarding schools had a reputation for facilitating access to the best British universities thanks to excellent education, but this is no longer the case. As the Economist recently reported, in 2014, 99 Eton students were accepted at the English universities of Cambridge and Oxford: in the 2021/22 academic year, however, there were 47, less than half, while at the same time 54 came from Brampton Manor Academy, a public school in London. More generally, it seems that today private colleges are no longer so relevant for other reasons as well.
One of the most well-known characters among those who studied at Eton was the well-known writer George Orwell, who like many others – including Winston Churchill – told of the corporal punishment to which those who did not behave well in boarding school were regularly subjected, as well as widespread bullying or sexual abuse suffered by teachers.
Even if today things have changed a lot compared to fifty or one hundred years ago, the conviction has long since spread among many families that taking a child away from home to study may not be a privilege, but rather a forcing. Then there are those who believe that educational models of this type risk causing various types of disorders in adulthood, from depression to difficulties in managing functional relationships. Those who support the boarding school system, on the other hand, believe that they serve to make girls and boys more independent and that currently in these institutions there is much more attention to the well-being, mental health and inclusion of students.
According to the Economist, this new sensitivity towards boarding school education is one of the main reasons why many UK families would no longer send their children there, which may have contributed to the progressive decline in enrollments observed in recent decades. In 1992, the number of boarding students in the United Kingdom fell below 100,000 for the first time since 1974, the year in which statistics began to be taken into account. Currently, the number of members remains more or less constant, around 70,000, explained the Economist: in the coming years, however, it could decrease also due to the large increase in fees, which are expected to continue to grow.
Today the annual tuition of a private boarding school in the United Kingdom ranges from 20,000 to 35,000 pounds, while at Eton the quarterly tuition alone is 15,430 pounds, meaning that for each school year the equivalent of around 53,000 euros is spent. With the progressive increase in tuition fees that has taken place over the last fifteen years and what is expected for the near future, many families do not want or can no longer afford to pay them (private boarding schools are also highly contested also because of the tax benefits they enjoy, widely criticized by the Labor Party).
The drop in enrollments linked to the increase in tuition fees and perplexities about the educational model has led British boarding schools to find new initiatives to continue to survive.
Many institutions have long been offering scholarships to attract students from low-income families, but also discounts designed for middle-income families who would no longer be able to afford the costs on their own. Another strategy is to open offices abroad, for example in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam, to reduce its dependence on British customers. Yet another method is to entice foreign students to go to study in the United Kingdom, focusing above all on the good reputation enjoyed by British boarding schools abroad.
The Financial Times notes that in 2019, 44 per cent of the nearly 29,000 foreign students attending British boarding schools came from China and Hong Kong; 7 percent were made up of German students and those of other nationalities gradually followed. Some institutions have a rather strict policy on the number of foreign students they accept, but not all.
For example, Gordonstoun Scottish boarding school, where King Charles III went as a boy, admits one-third Scottish, one-third English and Welsh, and one-third international students, with a maximum of 10 per cent of a single nationality. Some industry consultants interviewed by the Financial Times say that instead there are boarding schools – above all medium and low level – which are supported almost exclusively thanks to international students and aim precisely to attract the families of “newly enriched” in foreign countries. Eric Liang, director of the Hong Kong Education Web (an organization that advises on study abroad), says that sometimes, in order to have more students, certain British schools tend to be opaque in their admissions processes, causing some complaint.
Meanwhile all these dynamics have already forced some colleges to close. It happened to Abbots Bromley, north of Birmingham, which closed in 2019 after the failure of negotiations with some Chinese investors who wanted to take it over, and it also happened the following year for similar reasons to St Mary’s in Shaftesbury, in the south-west of England. St Bees School, located in Cumbria in north-west England, closed in 2015 and reopened three years later thanks to an agreement with a Chinese education body.
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