For the majority of us, our perception of boarding school will be derived from literature and the cinema. And in the cases of Tom Brown at Rugby, Billy Bunter at Greyfriars, the boys of Brookfield in Goodbye Mr Chips, the girls of St Trinian's and Harry Potter and chums at Hogwarts, the overwhelming conclusion to be drawn is that no one gets much sleep.
Dormitory is from the Latin dormire – to sleep – but 'shut-eye' seems the last thing on anyone's mind as children whisper, scheme and come up with wizard wheezes to pull the wool over the eyes of patrolling housemasters.
If a student does get to sleep it is generally because they have cried themselves there.
Bed sheets are cold, showers icy and porridge generally lumpy.
These Victorian institutions are portrayed as places to build character, a convenient euphemism for learning how to endure misery.
The overwhelming impression is that boarding school was a place where children were packed off to be homesick and unhappy.
That might have contained a grain of truth in the Victorian era and, indeed, a good deal of the 20th century.
Happily the reality today is far different. For 21st century boarders, schools really do their very best to provide a home from home, with a high level of pastoral care at heart.
This is perfectly illustrated by a new senior boarding house that opened at Adams' Grammar School in Newport in September
2017. Adams' bought a former care home, just a minute's walk from the school, in December 2016 and completely gutted and
refitted it at a cost of around £300,000. The result is Beaumaris Hall, a stunning home for Adams' 38 senior male boarders. Partly designed with university halls of residence in mind, to help pupils to prepare for the next step, it can cater for up to 50 students.
The rooms are modern, spacious and airy, divided mainly into single and twin-bed rooms with a handful of three-beds. Each
room has en suite facilities housed in hi-spec pods.
They are a far cry from the facilities they replaced – set in three Georgian town houses facing Newport High Street – where boys had to descend three flights of stairs for a shower.
Beaumaris Hall also boasts a spacious communal area with comfortable sofas and chairs, a pool table, computer games and a wall-mounted large screen television.
The funky supper kitchen, primarily in red and white, is imaginatively designed to capture the spirit of 1950s American diners.
The students are bowled over by the new facilities, as I found out when I chatted to four of them, Alexander Howard, Joshua Maloney, Stephen Lengyel and Sebastian Lowe, all aged 17.
“A lot of effort has gone into all,” says Josh, who has boarded for six years.
“The layout is much better. Before, your room could be a long way from everyone else’s. Now the rooms are all together in the same place,” adds Stephen, who is in his second year of boarding.
“There were other things, like the heating was either fully on or completely off,” says Seb, who is in his seventh year as a boarder. Alex, in his fifth year of boarding, adds: “The communal area is much better. The Xbox is pretty popular.”
Housemistress Colette Lonergan came up with much of the design ideas for Beaumaris Hall, including the American Diner theme.
“We now have the kind of facilities that we should be offering our students. It should be a home from home where the boys can have a level of independence in a caring environment. I’m very keen that they should learn skills like cooking so that they can look after themselves at university and beyond.”
All of our four students love boarding and, in the case of Alex and Seb, they actively wanted to be boarders – despite their families both living within a dozen miles of Adams’ – nailing the myth that children are packed off against their will by their parents.
“My father went to boarding school and he made it sound really enjoyable,” Alex says.
“I always wanted to do it.”
Seb says he was equally inspired by his father’s tales of his own life as a boarder. Stephen adds: “I like it because you always have your friends with you, which isn’t always the case at home.”
Josh also loves the life, though admits that when he first left home to board in Ireland as an 11-year-old, he was initially homesick– a naturally not uncommon feeling,particularly amongst younger children.
“I just dived into every activity I could, made friends and I got over it that way,” he recalls. The academic day is a long one with a couple of hours of prep work after the evening meal. There is the opportunity, though, to relax with a hugely diverse offering of extracurricular clubs and activities, covering a wide range of sports, culture and arts. Stephen, for instance, can indulge his passion for music, practising drums, piano and guitar. Josh, by contrast, loves rock climbing and gets the chance to visit indoor centres to train.
The image of lumpy porridge at the beginning of a day of Spartan rations has, it seems, disappeared into the mists of time. Boarders at Adams’ enjoy salmon en croute, steak, kebabs, curry and regular Sunday roasts.
One of the enduring images of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days is of the bully Flashman roasting our hero’s backside in front of the fire. You can forget all that in the 21st century.
“We have a zero tolerance attitude to bullying. Simple as that,” says Colette.
A trend in recent years is for independent schools to operate a flexible approach to boarding, meaning that pupils can often book in for a single night or, perhaps, the weekend. It means they effectively get to enjoy a ‘sleepover’ with friends while their parents can head off to their ball, dinner party or romantic weekend break, safe in the knowledge that their children are in the best possible hands.
The extra time to study - and easy availability of learning material - allied to the opportunity for regular use of top class sports, music, drama and other leisure facilities, invariably translates into impressive academic, sporting and artistic achievement by those youngsters who get the chance to go to boarding school.
There is another advantage, which Josh articulates beautifully.
“I can get out of bed at 8.15, wander across to the kitchen for breakfast in my pyjamas and see the buses arrive bringing in pupils who have been up since six and travelled from home for an hour to get to school.”