Send a child to a boarding school and they’ll thrive. That’s what many richer families believe when they send their children away to board, and it’s the belief behind a series of programmes set up around the world in the past two decades, aimed at providing places at boarding schools for disadvantaged children.
Two examples are the SEED boarding schools, started in the US in the late 1990s to teach poor black students, and the internats d’excellence (boarding schools of excellence), introduced in 2008 in France to teach students from poor families. There are 45 such internats are now operating in France, serving 4,200 middle and high school students, essentially for free.
These schools were opened because of concerns that the negative influences students are exposed to in their home environment could impair their academic potential. But very little is known about the effects that substituting school for home produce on students. The only study considering this question found that being enrolled in the SEED boarding school in Washington DC increases student test scores.
Boarding by lottery
In research co-authored with Luc Behaghel and Marc Gurgand from the Paris School of Economics, and conducted with the Poverty Action Lab, we analysed the effects of a French internat on student outcomes. Our findings suggest that while these boarding schools can help boost pupils who are already strong academically, they might not be helping weaker students.
The school we studied was created in 2009, and is located south of Paris. Only 258 places in the boarding school were available, but 395 students applied. Applicants were higher achievers than their classmates in their original schools, but because they came from low-performing schools, their performance was comparable to that of the median student in the French population. Half of them came from families where French is not the main language spoken at home.
Students admitted were randomly selected out of the pool of applicants. We followed both the lottery winners and losers – who stayed at their regular schools – over two years after the lottery and gave them cognitive and non-cognitive tests at the end of each academic year.
Stronger students do well
One year after the lottery, cognitive test scores were very similar in the two groups. But after two years, boarders outperformed lottery losers on the maths test. The difference in performance between the two groups was sizeable. Boarders’ maths scores were comparable to that of the seventh strongest student in a representative French class of 20 students, while the lottery losers performance was more comparable to that of the tenth strongest student.
Our cost-benefit analysis shows that the boarding school is as effective as reducing class size. But the effect of the boarding school mostly comes from students who were already doing well in maths before they started boarding. Students who were weaker to begin with did not seem to benefit: even after two years we did not observe any test score gains among them.
From their first year onwards, boarders experienced substantially better study conditions than our lottery losers who didn’t go to boarding school. They benefited from smaller classes, reported much lower levels of classroom disruption and praised the engagement of their teachers. We did not find evidence that the quality of their study conditions changed over the two years.
It takes time to adjust
These patterns might be due to the fact that adjusting to the school initially reduces students’ well-being. When students arrive at the boarding school they need to adapt to their new environment. They have to cope with the separation from friends and family and also relinquish a certain amount of freedom. They have to wear a formal school uniform similar to those of English private schools and spend less time watching television than the lottery losers.
The boarders also face higher academic demands. They are immersed in an environment with peers who are academically stronger and teachers who are more demanding. Most of the new students experienced a sharp decline in their grades when they entered the school.
These factors were probably responsible for the lower levels of well-being we observed among boarders in the end of their first year. They were more likely to say they felt lonely or uncomfortable at school. Yet during their second year, students seemed to adjust. Boarder’s levels of well-being caught up with those of lottery losers: their motivation became higher and they also reported spending more time on their homework. This could also explain why the stronger students made more progress than the weaker ones. We found some indication that the initial negative shock on well-being was larger for weaker students, while the recovery was faster for stronger students.
Lessons for other countries
Overall, boarding seems to be a disruptive form of schooling for students. Once they have managed to adjust to their new environment, strong students make very substantial academic progress. On the other hand, this type of school does not seem well-suited to weaker students: even after two years we do not observe any test score gains among them.
In England, the Centre for Social Justice think tank has suggested that more children from disadvantaged families should be sent to boarding school. One charity has already begun placing children in some of the UK’s top schools. Our results suggest that this type of policy might work with strong students, but not necessarily with weaker ones. Studies currently being conducted about the UK program will tell whether the results we found in France continue to apply across the channel.