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The changing face of boarding

Huw James looks at ways boarding schools can ensure they provide their pupils with the best possible experience

Posted by Hannah Oakman | March 07, 2016 | School life

It’s fair to say that the culture of boarding school has changed dramatically over the last 10 years or so. What was once considered a very sterile and isolating experience (pre-1980s) is now well and truly gone. Boarding, like many other cultures, continues to evolve and respond to current expectations and rightly so. However, at the heart of all good boarding schools remains the commitment to provide the best care, support and academic discipline as well as providing an environment where social skills and personal development are able to thrive. Interestingly, ex-Eton head Tony Little recently wrote about ‘love’, old-fashioned kindness and compassion and this is certainly the bedrock of a good boarding house.

Today boarding has to be about better communication between pupils, school staff, teachers and parents; better academic support, resilience and independence. Understandably, some parents with limited experience of boarding schools today will have reservations about enrolling their child, but it is down to the school to put those fears to rest. There are many misconceptions associated with the kind of person who sends their child to a boarding school. Many ask: “What’s the point of having children, if we then send them away?” Then there is the ‘G word’ – guilt: how will my child cope? How will I cope as a parent? Who will make sure they do their homework, brush their teeth, practise their reading, trumpet, spellings etc? All are common worries and are quite normal concerns that schools must empathise with. 

Trial nights are essential

For boarding to work for parent and child, both parties need any concerns answered and should be clear on exactly how the boarding house operates as well as having the opportunity to get a feel for the culture and personality of the house. Many schools offer trial nights where pupils can get a taster of what it is like to board. This is a vital exercise because here the children can get used to the environment, speak to current boarders about their views, ask questions etc. Parents should also be invited to spend time in the boarding environment so that they can familiarise themselves with the house, look through guidebooks etc. Sometimes what comes out of these exercises is that boarding is not right for a particular child or not right at that time. Of course, in many cases the reverse is true.

Freedom as you learn

Free time is also important for boarders. The topic of exactly how much free time boarders should be given is something of an ongoing debate with varying views. But one thing is for sure, any free time must be discretely supervised to ensure that pupils are being productive, even if that means simply indulging in a quiet chat or watching ‘Newsround’ on television with their friends. Even a relaxed game on the sports field is still very much a learning experience; socially the children are interacting, learning to support and challenge their team mates and growing as individuals. 

I believe that schools need to use free-time activities to their advantage to help pupils grow and develop their maturity. Free time can always be used imaginatively to help with academic attainment too, for instance treasure hunts, the use of particular board games, quizzes and conversations about current affairs. These are really all of the things that good parents would do at home and it is this culture that we should be striving to replicate in our school boarding houses.

Huw James

A home from home

The boarding environment must be a home from home and not a sterile institution that is just an extension of the school classroom with lists and official notices everywhere. Pupils must be encouraged to personalise their rooms, use good quality furnishings and their own bedding, display photos of family and have the use of nicely furnished, modern bathrooms. But the boarding environment is more than just fixtures and fittings. The manner and genuine warmth of the house staff is the most important element in making the boarding environment feel like a real home, with fun, friendly, motherly matrons who really know, understand and care for the boarders they’re looking after. 

These people are special to the house: they don’t mind washing a dirty pair of cricket whites for the next morning or helping a child with their book character day costumes; they laugh and join in the fun with the children and they will happily sit on the floor and play games. Meal times are also crucial. A canteen-style system is not reflective of an enjoyable family meal. Meal times need to be social occasions, with staff sharing the conversation and banter. The food should be served at the table, with everyone eating and clearing away together. Sadly, how often does this really happen in schools today even though it should?

We must always remember that children need to escape and feel they have left school each day. However, there should be an expectation from staff that reading is important, that homework must be completed to a high standard, discussions about current affairs are valuable etc. Waking up to Radio 4 or a French station (for older ones) can be productive too. The high academic standards of the school and those values need to be held high by the boarding staff and this needs to be obvious to pupils.

Resilience and independence at the heart

Once the parent has decided that boarding is the right step, there are many benefits to be had such as learning independence, becoming more self-reliant and managing one’s own time. But the first decision to make is what type of boarding is right for their child. Many schools offer a range of options such as flexi-boarding (one-to-four nights per week), weekly and full boarding. Most boarding houses won’t know which is the best option for a child until that child starts living their routine, so it is important for boarding schools to be flexible to pupil and parent.

The next five years will be an interesting period for boarding schools. Many are questioning whether to work hard at recruiting an overseas cadre of full boarders (which bring both academic and social challenges as well as diversity and opportunity) or to move away from full boarding completely. Academic support, however, is the priority here as is the provision of improved activities and facilities. Developing pupil resilience and independence should be at the heart of the boarding growth strategy in schools and it should be less about filling every minute of boarding capacity.

Boarding schools must adapt, listen, evolve and progress with the child at the forefront

Do boarding schools damage those they are meant to reward? 

Of course, when it comes to boarding, there will always be a raft of mixed views. I came across the Boarding Schools’ Survivors when writing an essay for my BSA boarding management qualification. My conclusion then remains true today: there most certainly was a culture of neglect and abuse in some boarding schools in the past. This is an absolute tragedy. It is a tragedy for the parents who entrusted their children to these schools and a tragedy for the schools whose good names have been besmirched. It is, however, the greatest tragedy for those people whose experiences were so disturbing that it has overshadowed the rest of their lives so significantly. In many cases these individuals have not been able to enjoy fulfilling and successful lives as a result. It is vital for these people that the full weight of the law acts to try to claw back whatever can be regained.

Thankfully, these experiences are in the minority and do not reflect what boarding was generally like at that time. They of course have no reflection on what boarding is like now either. It is not the fault of boarding as a concept, rather the fault of those who have used boarding as a way to carry out their real motives.

As for boarding school syndrome and boarding ‘surviving’, this has as much to do with the appropriateness of whether an individual should have boarded at all. The fault here lies with the school and the parents for not recognising that not all children are built for boarding.

So much important time is now spent thinking about the children and their welfare – quite rightly – that it is unlikely that a child will remain boarding for too long if it is not suitable for them and this is a good thing. Boarding schools must adapt, listen, evolve and progress with the child at the forefront.

Huw James is head of boarding at Edge Grove School W: 

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