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How did boarding schools come into being?

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Many have an impression of boarding schools as ancient institutions of education, perhaps reminiscent of ‘Harry Potter-style’ castle architecture. But how did these schools first come about?

The history of some of the oldest boarding schools in Europe can be traced back to the Middle Ages. They essentially had religious connections, taking the form of ‘cathedral schools’ or ‘monastic schools’ affiliated with the major house of the worship in the same city. At a time when the Church had substantial influence over every aspect of life in society, the aim of schooling was to educate the next generations of the clergy, which explains why Latin language featured heavily in the curriculum. Some schools also taught music with a view to training young choir members.

Secular schools began to appear a few centuries later, amid the social and economic changes towards the end of the Medieval Period. Many of them catered for the needs of upper- and middle-class families, especially those parents who intended for their children a university education and a professional career in medicine, law and so on. In contrast, some boarding schools started life as ‘charity schools’ providing education to less advantaged children, usually with endowment from the monarchy, Church or affluent benefactors.

Nowadays, the majority of boarding schools have developed into non-sectarian, liberally-minded institutions welcoming students from a diversity of backgrounds. New schools are being established, and existing ones transformed, to meet the educational needs of the modern times.