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State boarding schools in the UK

State boarding schools in the UK

When parents are looking at UK boarding schools for their children, they might want to consider the possibility of state-run schools. Here, Winter's looks at the choices available for boarding in the UK state sector...  


There are 38 state boarding schools – schools funded by the government – in England, including one in the Scilly Isles, plus one each in Wales and Scotland, the latter for children from Forces families, with a total of some 5000+ places. Some offer full boarding, others only weekly boarding. Some have boarding for sixth formers only, and one is a specialist sixth form college run by the MOD.

The state schools which offer boarding are as varied as any others, for example:

  • Brymore Academy in Somerset has a school farm and walled garden run by the students. It’s an all boys school and, though qualifications in horticulture and agriculture are offered, it also achieves great academic results, and has a proud tradition in rugby and athletics.
  • Polam Hall School in Darlington is rare in the state sector in that it takes children from age four to 19 (with UK and EU boarders from age 11).
  • Holyport College in Berkshire opened in September 2014 on a brand new purpose-built campus, the country’s first boarding and day Free School. Eton College is its sole educational sponsor, taking a leading role on the Governing Body. Its pupils are able to use some of Eton's facilities, particularly for sport, and also to join in educational activities at Eton (for example, attending speaker meetings in the evenings).

Single-sex and co-educational, Free Schools, academies and maintained schools, grammar schools and non-selective schools the variety in the state boarding sector is huge.

What do state boarding schools cost?

They are comparatively cheap – mostly somewhere between £10,000 and £14,000 a year in boarding fees – because the government foots the bill for tuition. The majority of pupils in most state boarding schools are day pupils, but many stay for after-school activities, alongside the boarders.

Forces families are encouraged to consider the state option when choosing a boarding school. Many are surprised to find that, in fact, state boarding schools could easily be mistaken for independent schools. Boarding facilities are comfortable and homely, sports and academic facilities are top class, and many state boarding schools top national league tables. With so much going for them, they are an attractive and realistic option for Forces families.

"Boarding facilities are comfortable and homely, sports and academic facilities are top class, and many state boarding schools top national league tables..."

The new boarding house at Shaftesbury School.

The new boarding house at Shaftesbury School.

Who can apply?

As with other state schools, state boarding schools are open to British citizens, EU passport holders and anyone with a right of residence in the UK. State boarding schools are permitted to interview pupils, to ensure they are suitable candidates for boarding.


Case study  Steven Crossley, Head of Boarding at Shaftesbury School in Dorset. 

Tell us about boarding at Shaftesbury School...

The school has a long history of boarding going back to 1898. Boarding in its current guise as a non-selective state school has been running for 30 or 40 years. The new boarding house and extension we use today were finished in 2010.

We can take up to 104 boarders and have 92 at the moment. There are around 15 different nationalities represented in our numbers, with kids from all over the world including Japan, Germany, Spain and Papua New Guinea. Most of our children have one British parent and one of another nationality.

What are the differences between state and private boarding schools?

There are obvious differences in terms of the class sizes, the socio-economic background of students and some of the school facilities, but when it comes to the boarding element of the schools they’re very similar. We all have the same standards we have to adhere to. We’re all looking after teenagers in a comfortable environment, and their day-to-day needs and wants are the same in both the private and state sectors.

Why do people choose state boarding?

Cost is one reason  it’s about a third cheaper than the independent sector, but that’s not the only reason. There are a lot of families who could afford to pay more but choose not to. There’s a desire to be a part of a ‘normal’ group of people  they don’t want their children in a too-privileged environment, or one which focuses only on good exam grades. A lot of our students do really well, and go to great universities, but the ethos here is a bit different. The setting here represents normal life, and the kids get exposure to people from a variety of backgrounds.

"The setting here represents normal life, and the kids get exposure to people from a variety of backgrounds..."

Shaftesbury School boarders enjoy an evening out at the bowling alley.

Shaftesbury School boarders enjoy an evening out at the bowling alley.

There are some state boarding schools which much more closely resemble private boarding schools, if they’re academically selective for example, or located somewhere costly to live. But a lot of people choose our school because of its rural location; we’re in a very beautiful part of England.

The UK is quite unique in having state boarding schools. We have a rich boarding school tradition in this country, and schools which were independent many years ago then became state maintained, still kept up the boarding part of their existence.

What do the school and its boarders bring to the area?

We are unique among state boarding schools in that we don’t recruit from our local catchment area, but from the EU and far beyond, so first and foremost, diversity. Barton Hill House, the boarding house, brings an enormous breadth of international experience. Students arrive from places which are very different culturally and educationally, and they bring all those experiences with them to this area, which is not, typically, a very diverse part of the country.

We celebrate the diversity among our students every day; each lesson in the school comes alive in different ways because of the mix of students present. There are occasions during the school year when our students can showcase different elements of their culture, but day-to-day, the boarders and the day pupils very much accept one another as being Shaftesbury students, rather than focusing on the different places that they’re originally from. It’s a very natural, harmonious existence. The students learn from each other through their friendships.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy how every day is different. The atmosphere is lively and productive, all the kids bring their own characters and perspectives to things. I love the international feel; I’m married to an American, and have lived and studied abroad. But we also exist as a family in the boarding house. I’ve got two very young daughters, and we live here in this huge extended family, which is full of variety and fun. I love that my work is also part of my home.

All images: Shaftesbury School

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