Every Sunday evening, there is a quiet exodus of teenagers from capital to countryside.
Fleets of shiny, branded minibuses collect their young passengers from affluent London suburbs and whisk them through the darkness to the green and pleasant lands beyond the M25.
Boarding school will be their home – until Friday night or Saturday afternoon anyway, when they return to the big smoke and their parents for the weekend.
Post-Harry Potter, boarding has found a new popularity, not least with high-flying, over-stretched mothers and fathers who find managing the school run every morning and evening a logistical nightmare.
More and more city parents are skipping the local schools and choosing instead to send their children to board during the week at schools in Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, and Berkshire.
A new and much more flexible approach to overnight stays offered by many semi-rural schools, with transport to and from the capital at either end of the week laid on, means that boarding on weeknights and being at home in the city at weekends gets a big tick.
In fact, this year’s Independent Schools Council census showed that the number of weekly and “flexi” boarders – where students stay at school some nights of the week and not others – at state and independent schools is higher than a decade ago; 17 per cent of all boarders in the
UK currently take advantage of schools’ weekly or flexi-boarding arrangements.
The advantages are not just practical ones.
Boarding schools have a long history of offering an all-round education – high academic standards, excellent pastoral care, all the sport and activities you can wave a hockey stick at, and campuses with the space for youngsters to spread their wings.
“The facilities provided by schools out of London are often so much better than many London day schools can offer,” says the company director father of a 14-year-old from south-west London, who recently joined Felsted School in Essex as a weekly boarder.
“Our daughter spends more time in a fresh-air environment than she would in London, and the boarding school structure in the week gives a valuable education in community living, teamwork and responsibility.”
Choosing a school out of town can also help to alleviate some of the emotional pressure on London families brought about by the increasingly fierce competition for places at the capital’s most popular schools.
This also eases the pressure on children, who have to manage parental expectations alongside the inevitable challenges of adolescent life.
“There are too many temptations in London for young people, which can interfere with studies,” says this father. “With our daughter only coming home at the weekend, these become more manageable.”
His youngster jumps on the school bus at Earls Court on Sundays and travels just over an hour to rural north Essex, where her playground consists of 80 acres of rugby, hockey, and cricket pitches, netball and tennis courts, neatly landscaped grounds, a music school, theatre, arts buildings and a chapel.
Like many of its long-established public school contemporaries, Felsted has taken a long, hard look at boarding and reimagined it for the twenty-first century, focusing on holistic care, activities programmes, and enhanced opportunities for learning.
“For students from London, weekly boarding is the ideal balance,” says headmaster Chris Townsend.
“This arrangement offers all the advantages of living in one of the world’s most exciting capital cities at the weekend when parents have time to spend with their children. And in the week, the educational opportunities and the space to grow and develop as an individual in a truly supportive environment.”
There are undoubtedly benefits for parental lifestyles too, says Ralph Lucas, editor in chief of The Good Schools Guide. “It can be an excellent arrangement. Parents can focus on their careers (and parties) in the week, and on quality family time at the weekends.”
There are certain practical caveats, though. As Lucas warns: “the child has to be ready for the separation, the school has to have excellent pastoral care, and parents have to really mean it about the quality family time.”
For many, a good all-round education and a logistically easier family life is a healthy return on an investment in boarding school fees.
For example, Felsted School’s weekly (five nights) boarding fee of £11,130 per term covers lessons, sports, activities, and overnight accommodation on an all-inclusive basis.
There are, of course, many excellent London day schools – state as well as fee-paying – but parents who are time-poor find themselves shelling out for childminders, after-school care, clubs and activities to bridge the gap between school home-time and the working day’s close of play.
All this entertainment can add up – and it’s clear that boarding schools offering 24-hour care in an enriching, stimulating, and spacious environment, can come out top of the class.