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The pros and cons of boarding school life: Ray Robertson discusses

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Disgusting food, harsh punishment and bullying after lights out. Only sadists send their children to boarding school, right? Or maybe that’s not the case. Are the parents of boarders, many of whom have been through the boarding system themselves, looking to gift their children more of a Malory Towers experience? An experience that’s all about five-star campus life, freedom and camaraderie. Do they believe boarding is the best way to prepare a child for life?

Certainly, what the boarding school system can offer looks good on paper. It provides children with a structured approach to both academic studies and extracurricular activities, with 24/7 access to sports and recreation facilities. There’s also social interaction with friends and peers of all ages, the opportunity to learn personal and social responsibility, zero travel time to school… safety and supervision. But what’s the reality? What are the pros and cons?

Free from parents

What do children treasure the most about boarding school life? Their freedom! They’re on their own (or at least with their own kind), doing their own thing, without parents constantly on their backs telling them what to do. They decide whether they want to eat in the dining hall or order out, they schedule consultations with teachers, they plan out their revision time – they are in control.

There’s no doubt that boarders are carefully supervised but at the same time, they are encouraged to be independent and self-supporting. They are treated like young adults, and most respond well, learning to cope on their own and to enjoy doing so. Living within a community, they find they have to learn to get along with other students and take responsibility for their own actions. Discipline and acting out are seldom an issue for boarders, because they are steered through adolescence by professionals… not parents.

Another advantage of growing up outside the nest? Boarders learn to be self-disciplined in all areas, from personal hygiene to academic organisation. This prepares them for life in the adult world.

On the other hand, the blessing of being free of parents can also be a kind of curse. It’s unusual for boarders not to suffer from homesickness at least initially, and separation anxiety can resurface at stressful times. Being trusted to make their own decisions is one thing, but boarders may miss having mum and dad around to hold their hands at crucial stages in their school career, for instance when they are choosing which subjects to study at 16 or making college applications.

In fact, one of the biggest criticisms that can be made of the boarding school system is that the influence family has on a young person’s life is compromised. Arguably, the best education happens when a student is benefiting from both a close-knit, supportive home environment and also an excellent school environment – and this is where boarders miss out. They have teachers and ‘house parents’ to look to – to help them succeed and to help them thrive – but they lack the constant hands-on support and influence of their own families.

Living with friends

Why do kids beg to be sent to boarding school? Well, that’s a no- brainer. They’ve read Harry Potter, they’ve seen the campus and they want to live the dream!

Many boarding schools used to be like barracks – complete with lumpy mattresses, cold showers and early-morning-runs – but nowadays, they’re much more five-star hotel meets Center Parcs. Ensconced in the lap of luxury, boarders get all the fun of living with their friends, sharing a dorm, or a room as they get older. Every night feels like a slumber party, plus they get a built-in social life. Boarders, particularly those without siblings, benefit from the constant companionship; they never have to look far if they need a friend to hang out with or vent to about their stress.

With dozens of mates on tap from the moment they wake up till the second they fall asleep, the bonds of friendship that boarders develop are incredibly strong and often these relationships endure long into adult life. Boarders come to rely on their friends as they would their family, and they feel secure within such a tight-knit community.

But there’s an obvious disadvantage to all this – boarders have a hard time getting any privacy and, during term time, they seldom get a break from their friends. Living at such close quarters may be tremendous fun when everyone is getting along, but when they’re not, disputes, even serious issues like bullying can arise. Boarders often find they are at each other’s throats simply because of how much time they spend together.

Equally, many boarders find themselves friendless when they come home for the holidays. They may not know the children in their neighbourhood and they likely won’t have formed any strong ties with them. Boarders mature more quickly than their day-schooled peers, which also sets them apart and can increase their feelings of isolation when they’re away from school.

Always on the go

Excelling academically! Scoring a try for your house! Being made Head Girl! Children love boarding school because they are never bored. As well as their classes, they have access to academic societies and top- notch sports, music and arts facilities. Everything on campus is geared to their betterment and/ or enjoyment, and their needs are prioritised, which is not something all children, particularly those whose parents are busy with their own careers, get to experience at home.

Boarding schools tend to have not just great teachers but specialist facilities, meaning they are able to cater to children with abilities that are either above or below average. At St David’s College in North Wales, for instance, one-on- one and small group support is provided, plus Speech, Language and Occupational Therapy.

With small classes averaging 12 to 15 students, study hall hours, and access to teachers that live on campus, most boarders feel the benefit and find they can excel inside the classroom and out.

Parents who are drawn to the boarding school system value the sheer volume of academics, athletics and extracurricular activities on offer, but the downside can be overworked, overstretched kids. For some children, having such a packed timetable can be too much; the pressure to excel in all aspects of school life can be overwhelming.

Consider a typical 16-year-old boarder’s schedule: 6.30am to 8am: Breakfast and assembly. 8.00am to 12pm: Class. 12pm to 1pm: Lunch. 1pm to 3pm: Class. 3.45pm to 5.30pm: Sports and extracurricular activities. 5.30pm to 7.15 pm: Dinner. 7.30pm to 9.30pm: Study hall. 10pm to 10.30pm: Dorms and lights out. That’s a lot to cram into a single day, and for some children constantly rushing from activity to activity can be too stressful, too regimented.

Boarding school can feel like boot camp – or the best thing since sliced bread. Would your child benefit from the experience? Would it set him up for life?

Find it

St David’s College, www.stdavidscollege.co.uk


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