‘What makes a good boarding school?’ – Barney Durrant, Head of College, St Lawrence College, Kent

21 Feb 2023

‘What makes a good boarding school?’

Barney Durrant

Barney Durrant, Head of College

The question of what makes a good boarding school and more than that, how do you know whether a boarding school is good, is one that we have all wrestled with. There is no doubt that visiting a school gives you a sense of the atmosphere, the grounds and the local area and if possible, you should always try to visit. I always think that choosing a school is very much like buying a new house. You may not immediately know you want it, but you generally know if you don’t want it within the first few minutes of walking in! Look at the way the pupils treat each other and treat the staff – and by this, I mean all staff whether they are the Head or Head Groundsman.  Look at the way the staff treat the pupils and the relationships they have with each other. Is there an obvious pride in the appearance of the school and the way in which the grounds and buildings are treated? Are the classrooms vibrant, energetic and pupil-focused; are the children clearly enjoying stimulating and active lessons? Are the boarding Houses warm, friendly and welcoming? These are some of the questions that I ask myself when walking around the school and they give an insight into the school’s values and ethos.

To a certain extent, the pupils in all good schools should be able to achieve their academic potential and it should be a given that the value-added scores for all pupils are significantly higher than the national average. The smaller class sizes, individualised approach and careful monitoring through tutors and housemasters/housemistresses in the evenings ensure that the pupils are supported and well taught. However, a good boarding school will do much more than this. It will inspire them with a love of learning, develop their creativity of thought and give them opportunities to genuinely develop independence within their education and more generally within their lives. Good boarding schools see the academic side of the school as not just a discrete stage in your education on the way to university, but as part of your educational journey that continues for the rest of your life. It is about giving pupils the skills and attributes for them to thrive at university and also in the 21st century marketplace. An essential element of a good education is to develop lifelong learners. The approach and mindset that we can always do better and improve either our skills and attributes, or our mentality towards a problem, is key to this and will be developed through the questioning techniques, aspirations of the teachers and culture within the school. Genuinely developing lifelong learners is not therefore simply about cramming for exams and teaching to the test. It is about inspiring pupils, enthusing them to work independently and empowering them to question, be self-critical and stand up for what they believe in.

Another key element of a good boarding school is the excellent pastoral care that is provided by their ‘school family’. In addition to smaller class sizes, the support boarders receive from housemasters / housemistresses and tutors, as well as through the chaplain, counsellors and medical team ensures that every individual is well-known, appreciated and developed. It is vital that our children are given opportunities to stretch themselves, to be independent and to fail – the latter being a really important element of education. However, in a good boarding school, they can do this in a safe and nurturing environment that also provides a high level of support when they need it. This principle of learning how to accept defeat, and also learning how to win magnanimously is taught through an excellent extracurricular programme. The benefits of team sports, such as camaraderie, leadership, teamwork and communication are enhanced through a strong Games programme, but a good boarding school will also have a broad ranging activities programme in the evenings, that caters for all pupils. Exposing our children to a host of key skills and giving them opportunities to thrive in all areas should be a goal of all good boarding schools. And this, of course, should not be the preserve of the sports field. Expressing yourself creatively is a vital aspect of any holistic education and so opportunities for art, music and drama should also be in abundance. Not all pupils will want a starring or lead role, so you may also want to look for the opportunities that exist for script writing, filmmaking, sound and lighting within the creative fields.

Finally, there can be a perception that boarding schools create bubbles of elitism and pupils who are out of touch with reality. However, good boarding schools will ensure that, as well as feeling valued and an integral part of their school community, the children have an understanding of their role in the local and global community and have a much wider perspective on their individual responsibility to society. This comes from the charity and service opportunities within the school, but also from living amongst a diverse student population. Living in a boarding house instils an understanding of tolerance and an appreciation of difference. It allows pupils to develop their emotional intelligence and to recognise when others need support or are struggling. The bonds of friendship developed whilst boarding can last a lifetime and the soft skills that are both explicitly and implicitly taught give our pupils a real advantage in the future – in both their personal and their public lives.

St Lawrence College Kent

St Lawrence College, Kent



St Lawrence College, Kent