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British Boarding Schools Fall on Hard Times

Parents question the value of sending kids away to grow up

In a break with centuries of tradition in British education, the country's parents are increasingly turning away from elite boarding schools and opting to keep their children at home.

"It's becoming less respectable to pack your child off at age 7," says John Clare, education correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, an influential conservative newspaper. "Parents who do so have to defend themselves repeatedly at dinner parties."

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Social attitudes are changing, with both middle- and upper-class families questioning the boarding system and beginning to take a critical look. In the last five years boarding has declined 20 percent in private schools, which are attended by 7 percent of British schoolchildren.

The downward trend is bound to become more noticeable as more and more young parents who were products of boarding schools themselves choose to enroll their children in day schools, in some cases breaking with generations of family tradition.

"I don't think attending Eton did me any harm at all," says Marcus Warren, father of one-year-old Gregory. "But I would prefer to watch my son growing up at home rather than at a distance. I even have doubts about sending him away at age 13."

Eventually, he says, he'd like Gregory to attend a day school, rather than his own school, the elite Eton, where Prince William is now enrolled.

Mr. Warren's words reflect a growing attitude among many British parents.

In addition, recession has hit many parents hard, and they have become skeptical of making long-term financial commitments. The reduction in armed forces, whose members received boarding-school allowances if they were stationed abroad, has also had a major impact.

"If a school has 120 students and they are 10 down from the previous year, their entire operating surplus is gone," explains Dick Davison, deputy director of the privately funded Independent Schools Information Service.

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As a consequence, many of Britain's less prestigious private boarding schools have declining enrollment, and some have closed. Others are struggling to stay afloat. Eighty-five private schools shut down in 1994, mainly boarding schools, while 73 new ones opened - almost all day schools. Most of the ones that closed were small boarding schools in rural areas.

Still, the wealthiest of the British elite continue sending their offspring to upper crust fee-paying boarding schools. These oldest and most elite institutions, with legendary names like Eton and Harrow - are still flourishing despite spiraling costs. In fact, many parents may see higher fees - which can reach up to 14,000 ($21,500), as a social filter to separate those who can afford it from those who can't.

While 93 percent of British schools are state-run, a disproportionate half of the 3,000 students who get accepted to Oxford and Cambridge, the top universities, come from private schools.

In the future, most private schools, even the most elite, will have to combine tradition with more up-to-date methods if they want to keep the students - and the money - flowing in.

To raise enrollment, schools have employed a variety of methods, such as recruiting foreign pupils, turning co-ed, or lowering their academic standards. Others have opened fee-paying residential summer schools for adults on their campuses. Some have made weekly boarding an option.

"Schools are becoming more businesslike in their operations," says Dr. Rodney Atwood, headmaster of Box Hill School in Surrey, which actively recruits students from former Warsaw Pact countries to compensate for the declining number of British pupils. "Schools are becoming conscious of having too many extras and keeping the costs down. There is a struggle to keep numbers up."

Harrow, in West London, has recently built its own modern theater, enabling students to take contemporary courses in lighting and stage design. Founded in 1572 and the alma mater of such distinguished leaders as Winston Churchill and Pandit Nehru, Harrow's recent pupils include the sons of King Hussein of Jordan and Thai royalty.

Roedean, a girl's school founded in 1885 in the seaside town of Brighton, has seen its enrollment drop in recent years to 415 students from 450. Known for its nontraditional education, Roedean now offers its pupils courses one wouldn't expect at a prestigious girls' boarding school, including an automotive repair course in which students build a car themselves with parts taken from an old Ford Cortina.

To attract more girls, Roedean has introduced a "flexible boarding partnership" with parents, 60 percent of whom live within a two-hour drive of the school. Girls now see their parents at least 2-1/2 days every three to four weeks.

Many parents who send their children away to school these days wait until the children turn 13 or older.

"Back in India we are really family-oriented; we are with our families all the time," says Natasha Chinai, who entered Roedean this year from a day school in Bombay at the relatively ripe age of 16. "I think I came at just the right age."

At many schools, overseas students like Natasha are making the difference between success and collapse.

Potential overseas students often hear of British schools from private agents, many of whom act independently without the knowledge of the schools they allegedly represent. "Some agents are real sharks, and charge parents abroad 1,000 ($1,500) to get an interview at a public school," says Richard Woodhead, registrar at Millfield School in Somerset, Surrey, who just returned from a recruiting trip to Vietnam.

To help parents of bright but "socially disadvantaged" children afford private schools, the government in 1981 embarked on an "assisted places scheme," where fees for 30,000 children are paid for wholly or partly by the state. Opponents, however, say the country should be spending money to educate the majority of students who attend state schools, not the 7 percent who attend private schools. Nevertheless, Prime Minister John Major plans to double the program in phases at a cost of 100 million ($154 million) annually.

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