Boarding - a modern option for all parents?

As increasing numbers of employees relocate overseas for an employment opportunity, those with families face the difficult task of exploring the schooling options for their children. Heather Carruthers looks at why families might consider boarding schools – especially if they are new to the private education system.

Teenage school children stand at a bridge

St Mary’s School, Cambridge

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This article is taken from the latest issue of 
Relocate magazine.
– the must read for HR, global managers and relocation professionals.For those on an international assignment, with the number of international schools around the world at an all time high (almost 9,500 international schools globally and over five million students enrolled according to ISC research) there is likely to be a choice of English-medium schools wherever the job takes you – boarding schools are certainly no longer the only choice. But it is not always as simple as choosing an international school in the new location. In many regions around the world, international schools have long waiting lists, meaning a struggle for a school place. And what if your child is mid-way through their GCSEs? Do you pull them out and hope that they will manage to hit the ground running in the new location? Brexit plans further complicate school choices. This is where families may consider a boarding school option. 

A nurturing environment 

In recent years, boarding has had a face-lift. Long gone are the days when children were ‘sent away’. Now, modern facilities, pastoral care and stringent regulations mean that you can be assured your child is well cared for and receives a first class education. But is boarding only about practical arrangements for children whose parents are absent due to job commitments? Most boarding schools would argue of the importance of their existence in their own right – not just to meet the needs of working parents, but to provide a holistic education for a child, building character that gives them a head start in life. Speaking at the Independent Schools Show 2018 in London, Arabella Stuart, admissions and marketing officer at Sevenoaks School in Kent – herself once a boarder – provided some reassurances for parents new to the system.“Boarding is much kinder and more professional nowadays,” she said. “It is a lovely environment to grow up in.“School inspectors swoop in unannounced and strict rules and regulations are imposed on boarding schools to ensure the safety of the children.“One of the most important things is the pastoral support. The head of boarding has a great network of house masters, mistresses and tutors under them who ensure that all children feel cared for and that nobody falls through the gaps.”
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Guilt: the parent’s enemy

But for families new to boarding, the idea of sending their child away can generate feelings of guilt. Several of the Show’s speakers made reference to this old stereotype.“I hate the phrase ‘being sent away,’” said Robert Lankester, headmaster of Maidwell Hall, a boarding and day school for children aged from 7-13. “Children are being given a wonderful, exciting and happy opportunity.”Antony Clark, headmaster of Malvern College, who also spoke at the Show, said, “Boarding is usually a family decision and the family should look at their options a couple of years beforehand, definitely visiting a couple of times before taking up the place.There is no ‘right time’ to board as this will depend upon many things such as age, maturity, location, proximity to parents, parent occupation and much more.“A generation ago, young people were ‘sent’ to board, but these days it is usual for the family to take the decision together. It could be at age 9,11,13 or 16 – usually the latter two ages.”

Does boarding give children a head start?

It is the child’s overall boarding experience that schools want to reeducate the public about. And with many ex-boarders in high-profile business and political roles, people are curious as to whether there is a secret ingredient in the boarding system that generates success.“Boarding really develops a child’s character,” explained Ms Stuart. “A large part of this is the 60 plus girls or boys in the boarding house with you.“You have to negotiate what you watch on TV, work out who is doing which chores, help younger children with their homework or settling in etc. You become part of a community and learn to organise events and parties, developing your leadership skills.” Charlotte Avery, headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, a girls’ day and boarding school, concurs. “Boarders often have to share a room, as well as common spaces: being mindful of others and their needs, as well as being willing and able to tolerate others is a useful life skill.” “I would also say that one of the benefits of boarding is that students develop much greater independence. Whether it’s doing their own laundry, organising their own Food Tech ingredients or taking responsibility for their own finances, often our boarders do this with little or no input from staff. This often astounds me!” 

Malvern College’s Antony Clark believes that it the ability to read people that gives boarders the greatest advantage. “Boarders grow to understand the difference in people and to value that difference. They are more adept at handling situations where emotional intelligence is required, as they are more practised in doing so. “Boarders often have a sixth sense about inter-relationships with others and so, in my view, they certainly have the platform to succeed in the world of work.” Because of the international nature of most boarding schools, students find themselves living and working with children from many different countries. With increased globalisation, the ability to work across cultures and languages is a desirable trait for many businesses today. “Boarding means that you are learning to live with others from different cultures to your own. This develops generosity, tolerance and flexibility,” said Ms Stuart. “With this diversity comes a great network of friends around the world. And as increasing numbers of employees relocate internationally with their work, an ex-boarder may find that they already have a friend in their new location.” 

What are the main benefits of boarding for a child? 

Interestingly St Mary’s Cambridge asked both headmistress, Charlotte Avery and the school’s Year 6-13 boarders to respond to this question and their responses were almost identical. 
  • It develops independence and skills useful in adulthood e.g laundry, cooking, good sleeping habits, independent working, timekeeping skills 
  • Mixing with people from many different cultures, which helps to develop your communication skills and to grow your mind 
  • Living with others makes you more tolerant 
  • Students make ‘friends for life’ from all over the world 
  • Staff are always available for help with homework or problems. It is an atmosphere conducive of study 
  • Many activities and trips 

When is boarding not the right option? 

The response from several heads was unanimous. “There’s one kind of student,” said Ms Stuart. “One who’s being sent away against their will. “Making the most of boarding requires a child to engage with the staff and activities – they don’t have to be a particular ‘type’ to board, but they do have to want to engage.” Malvern College’s Mr Clark agreed. “If a child is not really able to engage effectively with peers, then I think a young person could be miserable boarding,” he said.Charlotte Avery also counselled that a child with a known mental health issue should clearly not board. “It is obviously not a good idea to place a vulnerable child in an environment with other children where they cannot receive the 1-1 care and attention they would in a family situation,” she said.Does a child need to have a particular mindset?“Willingness to share,” said Ms Stuart. “Not so much sharing personal space or physical things, but rather sharing in enjoyment, activities and ideas.”Malvern College’s Mr Clark elaborated on this, “Those who are happy to relate to others, to support them and co-exist are likely to get on best at boarding school,” he said.This sharing mentality and the ability to relate to others (which boarding schools are so good at developing) was highlighted by many heads as giving children a head start in the world of work. “It is all to do with their commitment to others and how they see themselves in the context of the needs and aspirations of others, as well as of themselves,” said Mr Clark.

For families considering boarding options, when should they start?

For those who may have a potential job relocation in the future, it is important to weigh up all of the school options (including boarding) as soon as possible. Most schools recommend a minimum of one year before entry.“Many of our families start looking two to three years beforehand,” explains Ms Avery. “Clearly families may want to visit a variety of schools to see which is right for their [child] and this takes time. Some schools also have application deadlines which can mean the earlier the family begin to research and visit schools the better.”And a word of advice from Sevenoaks’ Arabella Stuart, “Boarding schools are of such variety that it is also worth considering a few different ideas. The ‘best’ school might not be the most appropriate environment for your child – you must consider the strengths of your child.”And with some boarding schools specialising in different fields such as sports, the creative arts or STEM, there will be a boarding school out there to suit your child.
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