“How can anyone who loves their children even think about sending them to boarding school?” asked the friend of a friend at a dinner party. This was a farewell party, a week before I was to take on the headship of a UK boarding school. Perhaps the comments were understandable given her lack of knowledge and experience of such places. However, looking back now, having run boarding schools for 20 years I can attest that love is not something in short supply in residential education.
Boarding began in earnest in Victorian Britain, mainly as a means of helping the disadvantaged and the needy. 1855 saw the opening of the Manchester Warehousemen and Clerks’ Orphan Schools providing education and a home, of sorts, for children of local workers whose deaths had left their families in need. Six lost and lonely children were their first boarders and the new school took as its motto the little known Latin phrase “in loco parentis” meaning in the place of the parents. This paved the way to a law in 1870 making it a legal requirement that teachers act as would a reasonable and caring parent. The school may have changed its name to Cheadle Hulme School and now educates 1,500 boys and girls but the motto remains the same and this commitment to children runs like a seam through all good schools everywhere.
Prior to headship I worked at a school in Nottingham that had a long and close relationship with Thai families. Among many Thais who boarded there were Prime Minsters Mom Rajawongse Seni Pramoj and Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj. In those early days a boarder may not return to Asia for years, instead remaining with their Housemasters in the holidays, living as part of their family. The men and women looking after Thailand’s future leaders carried a responsibility far greater than making sure they passed exams. Then as now, it’s all about care, guidance, support and… love!
Teachers who look after boarders do so much more than teach subjects. They build excellent relationship with parents, getting to know the strengths, weaknesses, problems and circumstances of every child. They become counsellors, mediators, disciplinarians, comforters, helpers, supporters, planners and companions for every child every day and night of every busy term. Nobody can do this and just see it as a regular job.
In my experience, families who don’t send their children to boarding school sometime have a distorted view of why people do it and what it’s like. This isn’t helped by the naïve and inaccurate media view of boarding, so maybe it’s time to untangle a few “nots”:
What it’s not
∙ It is not Hogwarts although the camaraderie among the children, the shared enthusiasm for sports, the sense of community in dining together and the high points of parties and visits are all real enough.
∙ It is not a fantasy of top hats, toffs and tail coats. The lazy media stereotypes of a few posh boys in fancy clothes posing on the steps of grand old building exist today only in the picture libraries of some media outlets.
∙ It is not a world of cowering, enfeebled youngster and bullying, entitled older students getting away with horrible behaviour while the school is at the mercy of their wealthy parents.
Children are at boarding school for one core reason (explained later) but with a variety of purposes.
Why it is needed
∙ Families are on the move. Business, diplomatic, service and other highly mobile parents do not want to be transferring their children from school to school, country to country as their contracts, commitments or tours change. This can be traumatising for you people who will struggle to make and remake friendships and deal with different teachers, school environments and subjects. Boarding gives stability.
∙ Families need a place of safety. When we look as the lives of the famous and wealthy with their lovely houses, glamorous lives, celebrity events and international routines spare a though for their kids. Typically, grownups choose the lives they lead but their children have little or no say in the matter. They do not want to do their growing up in the glare of the public and the scrutiny of the media. We can all be challenging, different, experimental and temperamental when we are young and should be allowed to do our growing up in private. When a school community is familiar with these challenges and its community can keep school matters inside the school, keeping everyone safe and secure, a child can relax and grow up in a stable and supportive community. Kids can be themselves, not just the offspring of somebody rich and/or famous.
∙ Families need help. The world is increasingly open and accepting of the fact that we can’t all do everything and that keeping a stiff upper lip or burying our feelings is good for nobody. It is not good for us and not good for our families. Admitting that our parenting skills might not be our strength and that we need help may be very difficult but sometimes being open to this can be the very best thing for parents and child alike.
∙ Families are remote. Farmers, island workers and many others live and work in environments where there is a lot to do but other children can be few and far between. If ever you get away from it all and enjoy a few weeks of isolation or drive past the rolling fields in agricultural areas, think about how lonely this can be for a youngster who is there all the time. Many people are needed to keep remote resorts working and every farmstead is a home miles from any other. It is seldom healthy for children to grow up away from others their own age and a local school may not be an option.
∙ Families see it as the best type of schooling. Many boarders are from families where parents or grandparents boarded or the have close friends or family with boarding in their family. Families who have very happy memories of boarding life want their children to have the same experience. There is hard data to show the value added in terms of improved results for many who study as boarders with fewer distractions, more personal attention and closer supervision.
∙ Families are given a special opportunity. Although boarding schools charge fees, many are eager to offer free or discounted places to children with academic, sporting, musical or other potential. These scholarships can be as much as 100% off fees and can provide some talented children with opportunities that simply do not exist near to where their families live or are affordable for their parents.
At the core of all of these issues is one simple thing. Parents love their children and want to do the best for them. Their circumstances, location, lifestyle and earnings may be wildly different but this doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same way about their kids. A family who chooses a boarding school does not love their children any less or any more than somebody who see their child every day.
In my office a few years ago sat the ambassador to one of the UK’s larger, more important neighbours. We were talking about his son, who I will re-name Patrick in this article and his Dad had was seeing me for some advice. Running schools means you see a lot of family unhappiness and unfortunately, you tend to gain some expertise in teenage trauma, tantrums and torpor. Patrick’s family situation was not so unusual but this is no comfort to anyone in the heat of the arguments, harsh words, door slamming and the other high octane drama that some parents and kids go through. Patrick was pushing all the boundaries – big enough and smart enough to challenge his Dad and hurt his Mum but not so wise as to know what he was really doing or why. His recent school reports were awful, his grades had fallen off a cliff and he was just as disengaged at home. His parents were busy and knew they were not giving him the time he needed although Patrick seemed to want to spend as little time as possible with them.
Between us we decided to split the parenting. In term time we took over and made sure Patrick was up every day and that the work got done. We fed him, looked after him, gave him plenty of ways to get fit as well as express himself, make friendships and keep in touch with family and old friends. When Patrick went home it was for proper family holidays. His Dad was no longer the taskmaster, instead he took him fishing and to football matches. His parents had plenty to deal with as we all do as parents but at least they could focus on the positives and work with the school to navigate the difficulties. I only met Patrick’s Dad one more time – four years later when he sat in the audience watching his son graduate and address the whole school in his role as Head Boy. Patrick has become one of my most reliable, role model students, one who could speak form the heart when younger boys were causing difficulty and one who I know had a loving and firm relationships with his parents.
Patrick’s is just one of the many happy ending stories I could tell about the transformational aspect of a boarding education. Loving a child and allowing them to board are not opposites, for many they are two parts of a greater whole, developing the young person and extending the family.