Harry Potter has a lot to answer for. For many people, boarding conjures up images of wizards, spells, antiquated uniforms, and sorting hats. But none of these things, I’m happy to report, reflects the reality of boarding in the 21st Century, least of all at Harrow Bangkok.
What still strikes me as I walk around the boarding houses – even three years after arrival – is how light, modern, and comfortable they are. Think world-class hotel rather than the dated dinginess of Hogwarts. Then there is the sheer convenience of living on-site, with the vista of beautifully manicured grounds to wake up to in the morning and return to in the evening.
Whilst day children slog through the traffic on their way home, boarders are able to amble back to their accommodation, put on a cup of tea, and flop into the warm embrace of a well-stuffed bean bag. Then, as the mood takes them, they might pop out for a swim, play a game of tennis, or lose themselves in a good book. These are the halcyon days of youth that for so many have been lost under a barrage of pressures from the outside world.
The mental health of teenagers has been under assault in recent years. In the typical household both parents work; most would admit iPads and other screens take up a lot of the slack. Left to make their own choices, children do little physical exercise and socialising consists of inauthentic online tittle-tattle. Too many families while away their evenings staring goggle-eyed at their devices – parents answering emails, children playing vacuous games. In the increasingly fleeting moments of real-world interaction children remain cooped up inside or head off to plastic-filled theme parks, crawled over by lawyers to remove all the elements of risk and most of the fun. Little wonder that children brought up in this sort of environment find the immovable realities of the adult world difficult to deal with.
Growing up as a boarder is mercifully different. Devices are banished from large parts of the week; they are never allowed to replace wholesome physical activity. Because everyone is in the same boat, no-one complains. Added to this, living in a community means social skills: learning to share, the art of compromise, acceptance of difference, concern for others, and an awareness of self. Where the adult world can jar with the cosseted day- pupil, boarders have already developed the resilience and maturity to get the most out of life when they leave school.
At Harrow Bangkok we have a series of evening ‘Table Talks’ in which we prepare the boarders for their lives beyond school. The idea behind these is that they replicate the sort of kitchen-table talks that used to be a feature of family life and which are so important for imparting cross-generational wisdom. We discuss mental health, relationships, nutrition and physical health amongst other things. Two-way conversations develop and it’s wonderful to see the boarders’ confidence and self-knowledge grow.
There’s also an institutional understanding that boarding is part of school life. All of our staff buy into the idea of a 24/7 boarding school, just as they do in Harrow London. This has the happy effect of enriching school life for the day children too. The day is longer than at many international schools, with after-school activities often continuing until 5 or 6 pm. At the weekends the campus is as full of life as it is during the week – with every expectation that day children will come in to take part in orchestra rehearsals, swimming galas, revision sessions or football competitions as the school calendar dictates.
For the boarders, just before six in the evening, House Parents call their house meetings. Jimmy is told he’s got a dentist’s appointment; tomorrow the boarding nurse will go with him to make sure he gets there safely. Samantha is given a special mention and a round of applause for her poetry recital in school assembly earlier in the day. Normally shy, she beams with delight and offers an enthusiastic high-five to her housemistress. Next plans for the weekend are unveiled: there will be a treasure hunt on Friday evening, with clues dotted around the expansive campus. On Saturday, there’s the option of signing up for a bike ride in the morning, whilst in the afternoon there will be a ‘Bake Off’. Sunday morning
starts with a late breakfast in the houses after which it will be time to knuckle down to some homework for an hour or so. A number of staff from the main school will be popping over to help sixth formers with their university applications in the morning too. In the afternoon they’ll all be heading off to Ayutthaya for some sightseeing unless, that is, they are involved in the Football Tournament on the pitches just metres from the houses where they live.
The meetings close and the boarders head off to their evening meal. In the dining room, there is the contented hubbub that accompanies teenagers enjoying themselves. This is modern boarding: comfortable, fun with ample food for body and mind. Dark corridors, wizards and spells are nowhere to be seen, there is though more than a little hint of magic…