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Our guide to some of the strange language used in British schools!
From Beaks and Dames to Exeats and Privs, life at a British boarding school may be full of unfamiliar words and phrases. It can seem unfriendly and overwhelming.
At Oxford Guardians we make it our business to help overseas pupils and their parents with every aspect of life in British education. So, here’s our quick guide to British boarding school terms and phrases, to make your life as a boarder easy to understand right from the start.
Historic language in British boarding schools
Many of Britain’s great educational establishments have a long history, having started out as charities hundreds of years ago: Winchester College was founded in 1382, Eton in 1440 and Harrow in 1572; joined by top girls’ boarding schools such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1853 and Roedean in 1885. Many such schools have kept old terminology alive out of pride for their heritage and to foster a feeling of ‘belonging’ once students become part of the school.
Words describing the British boardings school year
First, the British education system does not work in calendar years. Instead, the academic year runs from September to the following June/July, ending with a long holiday of about eight weeks.
Structure of the year
In the UK the academic year is split into three segments. Here these are known as terms (or ‘halves’ at Eton) and each has a different name, depending on where you study.
September to December
The first term of the academic year is widely known as Autumn Term, but also called Michaelmas Term (from the feast day of St Michael and All Angels) or simply Christmas Term. The term runs from September or October until Christmas.
January to March
The middle term is usually known as Spring Term, though some British schools and universities refer to it as Lent Term (from the religious fasting time before Easter) or Hilary Term (from the feast day of St Hilary of Poitiers).
April to June/July
Many British schools and universities call this final term of the school year the Summer Term.
Holidays or Hols
Boardings schools generally close at the end of each term, giving pupils the chance to go back to their home overseas or to stay with friends and family in the UK. Oxford Guardians provides education guardians for overseas students, and arranges Homestays for pupils who prefer to stay near their school or at a chosen location during school holidays. We also arrange transport for our guardianship students to make it as easy as possible for them to travel home or elsewhere during school holidays.
Half term holidays of a week or more occur in the middle of each term (approximately mid-October, mid-February and mid-May), when schools and their boarding houses close. Students under our education guardianship will generally go to their host families at these times, so it is helpful if these Homestay families are not too far from the school.
Boarding schools will also have exeat weekends (or simply ‘exeats’), when students will also have to leave the school for two or three nights. Fixed weekends, by contrast, mean that everyone must stay at school, whilst parents may request an additional weekend off for special reasons – a priv.
Words or phrases for people at English boarding schools
Once pupils studying in England understand boarding school language they quickly adapt to using it themselves, and siblings and parents will soon be familiar with the special language that applies to their individual school. Here are some of the more common terms you may encounter for people at your boarding school:
- Master: Headmaster / Headmistress / Teacher / Principal
- Beak: Teacher
- HM Housemaster or Housemistress, resident in a boarding house and responsible for the pastoral care of pupils who live there
- RHT Resident House Tutor, a teacher who lives in a boarding house and supports the HM
- Matron / Dame, a female staff member who manages domestic arrangements in a boarding house.
- Tutor Teacher who acts as a personal mentor to a group of pupils or ‘Tutees’
- Common Room Collective term for the teaching staff, often adapted for students (eg, Junior Common Room for undergraduate students). May also denote a physical room used by them.
- Prefect, Head Girl / Boy Pupils who have won positions of leadership and responsibility.
- Scholar A pupil who has attained an exceptional standard in entry tests and has been offered a scholarship to attend the school (may include a fee reduction).
What words describe age groups at English boarding schools
In the English education system, pupils are assigned to Year Groups according to their age – for example pupils aged 13-14 will be in Year 9. These groups are given additional names in some British boarding schools. Individual schools will provide a glossary, but for example:
At Westminster School Years 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13 are called Fifth Form, Lower Shell, Upper Shell, Sixth Form and Remove, respectively. At Marlborough College Remove is the second year, coming after the Shell (first year) and the Hundred (third year or GCSE year).
Life at your English boarding school
During your time at boarding school in England you will enjoy the quirks of British culture and tradition. Your Education Guardian at Oxford Guardians is available to help you understand – here are some of the words we are often asked to explain:
- Full boarders: Pupils who live at school all term.
- Weekly boarders: Pupils who live at school during the week but return home for the weekend, usually on Saturdays after school and any matches.
- Dorms: Dormitories or bedsits in which boarding pupils sleep; may be shared with one or more other pupils.
- Sani: The sanitorium, Health or Medical Centre on site.
- Prep: Both homework and or the time of day set aside for homework, often after dinner.
- Tuck shop: Place where pupils can buy tuck, or treats, such as sweets (they may also bring a tuck box of goodies from home).
- Gation: A punishment where a pupil is gated (confined to the boarding house).
- Colours: Awards for excellence and commitment in activities.
Oxford Guardians make starting an English education as easy as possible
It can be difficult to adapt to a new educational environment, but here at Oxford Guardians we work to make your life as easy as possible.
Our Education Guardians can offer as much help and support as each pupil needs. For younger and older pupils alike, boarding schools can be a huge change from what they are used to, and understanding unusual words and phrases can go a long way towards helping them settle in. Every little helps!
For more information on our Education Guardians and how they can help you transition to a new life in English boarding schools please contact us on email email@example.com or on 01604 859 331.