More choose a life on board

Home from home: Pupils at Mount St Mary's, Spinkhill, which has between 80 and 90 boarders at the school.  Pictures: Steve Taylor
Home from home: Pupils at Mount St Mary's, Spinkhill, which has between 80 and 90 boarders at the school. Pictures: Steve Taylor
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RISE at 7am, lights out at 10pm – the strict regime of boarding school is enough to terrify any teenager, but Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers that demand for boarding at South Yorkshire’s Mount St Mary’s is growing.

MATT Powell’s kitchen is like no other.

On the other side of the door is a hallway linking the rooms of about 45 school boarders, any of whom could knock on Matt’s door at anytime around the clock to talk to Matt or his wife about their problems.

And that’s because Matt’s kitchen is in the upper storey of the main building at Mount St Mary’s – a boarding school, where Mr and Mrs Powell work as a teacher and a housemaster.

And his proximity to the boarders is key – Mount St Mary’s is their home and Matt and his wife are there to make the boarders feel as at-home as they possibly can.

“We have been known to be sat up at 3am over a cup of tea with some of the students,” says Matt. “But they need that support sometimes and of course there are issues that many of them have to deal with such as bereavement or families breaking up.”

There are about 80-90 casual borders at Mount St Mary’s, which has been a school since 1842.

The school was founded by Fr Randall Lythgoe, the Provincial Superior – or leader – of the Society of Jesus. The college has followed Catholic Jesuit principles ever since, including respect and training children to think for themselves,

In spite of its religious foundation, however, Mount St Mary’s is not a faith-selective, or academically-selective school. It does not discriminate when it comes to potential boarders.

Fees range from £11,448 per year for a day boarder to £24,373 for a full boarder and weekly board costs £19,623.

But despite the costs, the demand for places at Mount St Mary’s is growing.

Headmaster Laurence McKell said: “We have had more and more people coming here for a look round in recent years – even in the recession.”

Mount St Mary’s director of business development, Paul Scott, added: “We offer flexi boarding, which means that pupils can stay for just a couple of nights a week if they want. We have one student from Tickhill in Doncaster who does that.”

The opportunities available to the pupils at Mount St Mary’s is also an attraction, as the head explains: “There is so much on offer for the students here, there’s the sport activities, the music, drama and the intensity of the whole place.

“The teachers who pupils interact with and the peer groups they interact with makes them more confident and mature.”

Laurence also believes that boarding offers a child care solution for parents working extra long hours.

In fact, last year, more than 14,000 pupils between seven and 13 were sent to boarding school in the UK – five per cent more than the previous year. This increase, experts believe, is attributable to longer working hours.To parents, an appealing solution.

Also, the average class size at Mount St Mary’s is around 12 students and pupils have opportunities to try, among many other things, fencing, photography, not to mention North American ski trips.

“You can be heard in a class of 12,” says Laurence. “And the teachers are the people who also help you with your studies, so that relationship and respect is there, the kids would walk on hot coals for our teachers.”

And while many of the school’s students have no choice but to board – having families in places such as Chile and China, there are some pupils whose parents pay boarding fees despite living only down the road.

Olivia Smith, 15, from Clowne, near Chesterfield, is a weekly boarder at the school.

She goes home every weekend.

She says: “I came here in year seven and didn’t board then but I started boarding on a flexi basis in year eight and really liked it and wanted to stay.”

Olivia shares a room with her best pal, Jess. “We just have a good laugh,” she says.

But as for wanting privacy – so precious to most girls of that age, Olivia says: “I never really want to be on my own.”

Her room – like all the rooms at Mount St Mary’s – has its own clean, new-looking bathroom, but what’s striking is how little is resembles a teenager’s bedroom – there are no posters, few books, few CDs and virtually no clutter in Olivia’s space.

But according to Paul, the pupils can personalise their rooms as much as they’d like.

He said: “We want to make this as much like home as possible. Inspections are very rigid and inspectors want places like this to be as home-like as possible.”

Nowhere is this more evident than one of the boys’ rooms, in which a sea of strewn clothes lies on the floor and beds remain unmade. “You can see how at-home they feel,” laughs Paul.

Joe Tetley is in upper sixth and boards at the school throughout the week.

He believes the school offers him a better life than would otherwise be available to him through the local comprehensive.

He said: “There are more opportunities here and I have friends from all over the world.”

Joe also plays on the first rugby team at Mount St Mary’s as well as cricket for Yorkshire.

“It’s great for sport and being here is a good stepping stone for life as you learn to be more independent but with all the support you need from teachers,” he added.

To those of us whose experience of boarding is limited to Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers or the infamous Ripping Yarns episode, Tomkinson’s Schooldays, our perception of boarding school is somewhat at odds with the reality – gone are the days of evening detentions, as Paul explains.

“We don’t carry detentions through to the evenings – the house is a very different place.”

All boarders participate in after school activities until 5.40pm. Supper is at 6pm and study runs from 7pm to 9pm on week nights. “These sessions are supervised too,” said Paul. “This is a huge attraction for parents.”

Holly Band, an upper sixth student says: “I can get lots of work done here. I know people younger than me who have gone to the local comprehensive and started smoking. Here I can just focus on my work.”

The emotional effects of being sent off to boarding school are debated by many psychologists, some of whom claim that children who are sent off to boarding school struggle to form intimate relationships in later life and find it difficult to communicate emotionally.

But for Olivia, Holly and Joe, they seem to be very much at home at Mount St Mary’s.

“It’s like a family here,” says Olivia.

A typical day at Mount St Mary’s

7am rise for all year groups

7.30am-7.45am breakfast

8am boarders’ registration and briefing in the chapel

8.35am: school registration

9am: school lessons of 35 minutes begin

4.45-5.40pm – after school activities

5.45-6.30pm: supper

6.40pm: evening call, library

6.45-8.30pm/9pm:evening studies

9pm: study sessions finish

10pm-11pm - lights out/retire to bedrooms

School years

At Mount St Mary’s school years are not referred to as year seven, year eight, and so-on. Year seven is known as ‘Elements’, year eight is ‘Grammar’, year nine is ‘Grammar’, year ten is ‘Syntax’, lower sixth is ‘Poetry’ and upper sixth is ‘Rhetoric’.