Boarding schools in demand because of lack of screens – principals

Supervised study and sports mean students ‘don’t have time to waste’ on smartphones

Clongowes Wood College:  its  numbers have climbed to 450 students, the highest in more than 200 years. Photograph:  Peter Thursfield

Clongowes Wood College: its numbers have climbed to 450 students, the highest in more than 200 years. Photograph: Peter Thursfield


Many boarding schools say student numbers are on the rise because parents do not want their children to be “hunched over screens” in their bedrooms, according to school principals.

Enrolments for many fee-paying and boarding schools have bounced back following a fall-off during the economic downturn, with some reporting an all-time high in student numbers.

School principals say a number of factors, including the growing economy and strict smartphone policies, are likely factors behind the rise.

Clongowes Wood College, which charges €19,500 a year, says its numbers have climbed to 450 students, the highest in more than 200 years.

Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick has also recorded the largest enrolment in its 80-year history. It charges €19,300 for seven-day boarding.

St Columba’s College in Whitechurch, Dublin, the most expensive boarding school in the State with fees of up to €22,797 for senior boarders, says its numbers have also grown strongly in recent times.

Smartphone use

Mark Boobbyer, the school’s principal, said the “number one” question asked by parents was the school’s policy on smartphone use.

Boarding students, he said, were allowed access to phones only in their dorms and they were taken away from younger students at night.

“It’s on parents’ mind all the time because, in a sense, they feel they are fighting a losing battle,” he said. “Maybe day pupils can be on their phones or Playstations when they go home . . . for boarders, there simply isn’t time for wasting on screens. So, most parents are quite happy with that.”

Edward Gash, principal of Midleton College in Co Cork, said the school’s policy was to ban smartphones during study, while junior boarders were not allowed to have phones in their dormitories at night. They are also not allowed during meal times, in a bid to encourage conversation among students.

“When you see students without their phones, you see them laughing and enjoying themselves. It is very important to have real, face-to-face interaction,” he said.

The Boarding Schools’ Association – a UK-based organisation which also includes Irish schools – last week said the growing appeal of boarding was down to students having more time to dedicate to their passions.

“Why sit in a car or on a train or a bus for 45 minutes twice a day, or in a bedroom by yourself hunched over homework or a screen?” asked association chairman Martin Reader, the headmaster of Cranleigh School. “You could be spending those hours rehearsing for a play, having a band practice, spending more time mastering your musical instrument or your goal-shooting technique, spending more hours perfecting that painting, debating or discussing politics or science or history – whatever is your passion.”

Some school principals say an increase in international students has also helped boost boarding numbers in recent years, particularly during the downturn.

Irish boarding schools are significantly less expensive than their UK counterparts, partly because the State pays teachers’ salaries.

In all, the Government pays about €100 million a year in wages for teaching staff employed in private schools.

This has been a controversial practice, with some political parties arguing that taxpayers are subsidising educational institutions of privilege.

Private schools, however, argue that ending this would send costs soaring, or result in schools entering the “free scheme” at even greater cost to the taxpayer.