Boarding schools no longer need 'Harry Potter effect' to inspire children, leading headmaster says

Camilla Turner
A scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - Murray Close

Just over a decade ago, the “Harry Potter” effect was credited for sparking something of a renaissance for British boarding schools, which had seen a steady decline in numbers over the previous twenty years.

Several of the country's leading institutions set about building new boarding houses to cope with the surge in demand from a generation of children - and parents - who wanted to re-create the enchantment of boarding schools conjured by J. K. Rowling’s novels.

But now the chair of the Boarding School Association (BSA) has said that the Hogwarts-inspired wave of popularity is waning, and institutions must think about ways to modernise their image to attract new students.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Credit:  XPOSURE

Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter’s School in York, one of the boarding oldest schools in the country, said that the “Harry Potter effect created something of a boarding school revival but it cast a false spell”, adding that schools need not seek to “bamboozle” children or their parents into boarding.

Speaking at the opening the BSA annual conference in York this week, he will tell headteachers that their message to parents must be that boarding is “not about enchantment or escapism”, but is instead about “real community life, it is about being part of a family”.

He will say: “No human institution can ever consider itself perfect, and schools, like any organisations, need to be open to change for the better.”

Mr Winkley, whose father was also a boarding school headmaster, is expected to say that we are “light-years” away from the days when parents “sent their children away” to boarding schools.

Eton College is a member of the BSA Credit: Tim Graham / Alamy

He will add that during his 24 years of teaching in boarding schools, he has seen a “remarkable, perhaps even revolutionary” change in pastoral care and well-being at boarding schools, which must be conveyed to parents.

There are currently 70,265 children educated at British boarding schools, according to the Independent Schools Council’s latest annual census, which was published this week.

The boarding school student population was in steady decline from 1987 up to the early 2000s, when the trend reversed and student numbers begin to increase. This was around the time that the Harry Potter series was reaching peak popularly.

Numbers have fallen slightly over the past few years, according to ISC data, but the overall figures are healthy, said Mr Winkley whose association represents 550 boarding schools, of which 40 are state-funded.

The Harry Potter effect "created something of a boarding school revival but it cast a false spell", says Leo Winkley Credit: Warner Bros

“There are nuances and changes in patterns,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Fewer children are boarding at a younger age, but there has been a real growth in people boarding as sixth form level - which parents see as a fantastic transition toward independent living.”

He said that boarding schools must convey to parents that they are not “isolated bastions” of a bygone era, but are relevant and playing an active role in their local communities.

“They need to be be trumpeting the message that they are relevant, 21st century institutions which are connected to their local and wider communities,” he said.

 

He said that far from the “stiff upper lip” reputation that boarding schools once embodied, the modern day experience “couldn’t be more different”.

“Over the past ten years there has been a really strong focus on pastoral care, mental health and well being,” he said. “I think that boarding schools have really led the agenda on this. Our members were the first to talk about these issues in schools.”

Sir Anthony Seldon, a former headmaster at Wellington College who is now vice-Chancellor at Buckingham University, has long emphasised the importance of well-being. Meanwhile the headmistress at Cheltenham Ladies’ College has said she would consider scrapping homework and would set her pupils' well-being on a par with their academic grades.

Tom Chambers took part in the television show Strictly Come Dancing and won Credit: Guy Levy/BBC

Mr Winkley said that the sector need not rely on the popularity of fictional characters, as there are “huge numbers" of real life boarding school champions.

“I think what Harry Potter did was present this very strong sense of what youngsters can gain from a thriving boarding school community,” he said.

“We are very grateful to him - but we don’t need to rely on him to sell boarding. There are huge numbers of champions of boarding schools - leaders in all kinds of different sectors”. He cited the West End actor Tom Chambers and the England rugby player Maro Itoje.

Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Mr Winkley, whose three children are educated at boarding schools, was previously deputy headmaster at Bedales school, whose alumni include the singer Lily Allen and and the ex-girlfriend of Prince Harry, Cara Delevigne. He was also a head of department at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and  assistant housemaster at Ardingly College in west Sussex.

Dr Simon Walker’s study into how different types of education affect the developing minds of young people found that children who are educated at boarding schools - either private or state funded - were more “mentally robust” than their peer who were educated at day schools.

His findings, which will be presented at the BSA conference this week, were based on a study of 4,000 students at 20 schools and assessed “steering cognition” which is the ability to react to a range of situations.

Dr Walker, a researcher in human development, said that his study showed that “the minds of boarding students showed greater social flexibility and emotional responsiveness.”

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