The popularity of prep school boarding
– James Hanson, Headmaster of Aldro School
‘You warned me this might happen!’ Some headmasters might dread a parent coming to see them and uttering that statement. However, I smiled inwardly as this particular mother told me the story that I had been quietly anticipating would come at some point in the future. ‘My other half was away all this week with work, I had to go to my daughter’s concert on Wednesday evening and couldn’t pick up Rory from school. He caught wind of my dilemma on Monday and said, “It’s OK Mum, I’ll board”. After my jaw hit the floor, I quickly gave in.’ I told her that he would have an amazing time and that he would be served pancakes, maple syrup and bacon for breakfast, so he might be asking again.
With a large number of day pupils, we really do have the best of both worlds. At Aldro we don’t push our pupils to board and nor do parents – we let the boys lead on the decision. Many pupils start with no intention of boarding early on in their school career, but later on want to try it because their friends board or because of all the activities and adventures to be enjoyed at weekends. At Aldro, it may be so that they can attend the world-famous Boarders’ Feast, held on the last weekend of the Christmas term. That Feast is also the only time in my life that I have seen an 11-year-old child devour second, third and fourth helpings of Brussels sprouts.
Boarding schools really do benefit pupils and boarding fits well into a great prep school education for boys and girls. At Aldro (a boys-only school), we often talk about the boys coming into a family school, joining a group of 200 brothers and growing up together. This fraternity serves so many wonderful purposes – not only for families who want stability and for their children to grow up with a community around them, but also for parents who want independence and curiosity to be fostered in their children. Boarding is a natural educational journey for many Armed Forces families. Just as Service parents have a sense of community in their own places of work, boarding can replicate the family structure at school. Boarding is also a wonderful way of introducing boys to the idea of vertical friendships, with mentoring from boys from older years, bringing boys together who might not necessarily overlap in friendship groups or academic lessons during the daytime. This is great preparation for later life.
Most prep schools have just one boarding house (for each gender), sometimes linked through houseparents. The aim is for the boarding house to be centrally located in school, accessible to the resident team and an inspiring place to grow up in. All the boarding staff buy in to the concept of living at work and being around and on call 24/7. Some people may unfairly judge that boys are not interested in room décor or in making their own personal space, well, personal. Many schools have found the secret to unlocking that creative side. For example, at Aldro each year we have a Christmas bedroom decorating competition. If I have ever seen boys galvanised for sport, music or chess, this competition has surpassed the lot! When else can a parent observe ‘So that’s where our Christmas tree lights disappeared to!’, or see a boy walking into school carrying a life-size Christmas reindeer that their home could do without for two weeks?
Most boarders are lucky enough to have views from their bedroom windows on to acres of green space, sports pitches, swimming pools, tennis courts, maybe a lake – the grounds of prep boarding schools are often a real paradise for children and become as familiar to them as their own gardens at home. For example, one evening I was working in my study downstairs and looking out into what I thought was darkness, when there was a knock at my door and I was politely asked by the boarders to ‘go home’ as my lights being on were distracting them from a game of outdoor Colditz, meant to be played in pitch black!
James Hanson attended Warwick School and Oxford University, where he studied for Masters degrees in Mathematics and Zoology, winning a Wellcome Trust Prize Studentship. He completed his teacher training at Warwick University and began his teaching career at his old school in Warwick. Following Warwick, he spent ten years at Harrow School and then became the founding Headmaster of the Royal Boys’ Senior School in Haslemere, before taking over as Headmaster of Aldro in 2015. He is married to Jenny and they have two daughters.