Children are walking away from us from the moment they are born. Well, maybe not that moment – there’s lots of swaddling and peeking at the world over their mother’s breast, and much sleeping, to be done first.
But the saying goes, “A year to walk and a second to talk” – which rather suggests that, in evolutionary terms, walking is more important than talking. Your life can depend on your mobility. But communication? Maybe not so vital. Look at the recent picture of Prince George reaching his first birthday – what is he doing? Walking away. Not even Mum is visible in the photo. “Excuse me, I’m off!” says the picture. Heading for the cameras, as it happens, but then that’s a prince’s life.
Apart from the simple matter of needing to run from predators, children’s capacity to walk away must be deep within us, right from our cave days. Otherwise, we would surely still be living in them, with mum and dad peering out across the plains, murmuring, “Ooh, I don’t know, it looks quite scary out there, do you think you should?”
If the strapping son hadn’t swung his club on his shoulder, picked up a meaty bone and strode past them in search of pastures new – “Mu-um, I’ll be fine, honest, I’ll send smoke signals! Keep watching the horizon, ok?” – we would all, by now, be huddled in a very overcrowded cave.
For most mums and dads, the first big step out for their children is their first day in school. The baby you cradled is now out of the door, gone into the care of strangers for a whole day at a time. How will he cope? Who will look after him? Who will notice if he falls over, hates his dinner, or has no friends? “Help!” we want to cry. And you look at his teacher and you think, “I’ll bet you’re more interested in your social life than you are in my precious child, and besides you have thirty other children to worry about, will you really pay him the attention he needs?”
No wonder there are poems about that sense of desolation a parent feels at that first, real departure of the beloved child, though oddly enough I find it hard to recall a poem about the delights of going. Perhaps those who go are too excited to be writing it down, or too busy getting on with the great adventure. We who are left behind have time to mull, and record our sadness.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, one of the transformations of education in my lifetime has been the way in which schools have recognised what can be a traumatic time for all concerned – and taken positive steps to address it.
Between my children and my grandchildren, schools really changed. For example, many primary school teachers now visit children at home in the term before they join Reception. How valuable must that be for the teacher to actually know how things are at home – how many books, what comfort, what visible relationships with siblings and parents – and to have all those ‘background shots’ in mind when the new class assembles? Then there are terms starting with staggered days, short to begin with, so the child is not totally exhausted by the first whole week – a nightmare for working parents, no doubt, but probably a boon for a tired child.
The old days of ‘Just get on with it!’ have gone. Even getting ready for the second year now involves virtual acclimatisation before the end of the previous year, with children knowing exactly who will be in their class, and spending time in next year’s classroom before this year is over so they know where they go in September, and don’t spend the summer in a state of quiet panic. Schools now work really hard to alleviate the shock of the new.
And that’s true of boarding schools too. If watching a child going to school for the first time can be heart-wrenching, seeing a child off to boarding school can be ten times worse, for obvious reasons. But one of the reasons boarding schools are thriving is because of the real changes brought about by schools recognising how hard that separation can be. There are sleepovers and visit weekends in the term before you arrive, and links with current boarders – postcards and emails and relationship-building, so that September is not a bleak entry into a cold world of strangers.
Even becoming a boarder can now be a gradual process, working your way up from an occasional night when there’s a late rehearsal or an early start the next day, to regular part-time boarding a couple of nights a week to avoid the school run, leading up to weekly and then full boarding as the child acclimatises to the journey to independence (and his parents realise that he’s going to be ok, and their hearts will not break at his absence).
In homes where both parents work long and hard hours, weekly boarding may not feel like separation from home at all. The whole family is working hard all week, having quality time together at weekends, with the extended school day offering opportunities and structures a whole lot better than a patchwork of care arrangements before and after school for a child whose parents leave early and return late.
Even full boarders today will find much more tolerance towards requests to go home in what would normally be boarding time. Perhaps that is why 83% of boarders are described as ‘full boarders’. It is probably a more relaxed and tolerant experience than would have been the case even ten years ago.
Becoming a boarder in the sixth form is a recognised staging post on that walking away journey. More independence than home, but well short of the crazy freedoms of university. No wonder more than a third of all the boarders in independent schools are in the sixth forms. And even so, most parents of boarders live within an hour’s drive of school. The child is on the journey, but we do not like to be too far away.
If we are far away, though, modern technology keeps child and parent in touch in a way undreamt of in what now seem like the olden days of boarding: phones, email and Facetime all mean that the school is no longer a closed world. Child and parent are connected. We are no longer alone, and neither are they.
A lady from Hong Kong once said to me, “You British – you will not let your children go! Even when it is in their interests! Chinese parents will send their children across the world for the best education they can find, because it is good for the child!” A different country, a different culture. But as all our children begin a new year in school – day or boarding, Reception or Sixth Form – let us watch them go with a glad heart. They are the rockets, we are Houston. If they have a problem, they will call.
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association