To board or not to board?
The kindly nature of today’s prep schools means that sending small children away tends to be much worse for the parents. Martha Terry explains the benefits and choices of a more enlightened age
It offers them a slice of their very own Hogwarts,’ explains Claudine Macintosh, whose eldest two children started boarding at Eagle House prep school in Berkshire in year seven (aged 11). ‘they will most certainly look back upon these days as having been magical.’
Glorified sleepover or stiff-upperlip boot camp for seven year olds? Although owl post and Quidditch aren’t part of the experience, today’s boarding prep schools are awash with Cath Kidston-decorated dormitories, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream cakes and other homely comforts. It’s a far cry from images of weeping boys in draughty shorts being packed off for an eightweek stint of bare floors, stale bread and cold showers.
‘My brother was so homesick, he ran away, but he was only six. It [boarding] was normal then, although it seems terribly young,’ recalls Hermione Owen of school life in the 1960s. ‘However, I loved my own experience at Knighton House [girls’ prep in Dorset]. I was the youngest child and couldn’t wait to leave home, plus there were ponies there. It really depends on the child.’
Certain psychiatrists, such as Jungian analyst Prof Joy Schaverien, who coined the expression ‘Boarding School Syndrome’ for adults suffering from behavioural difficulties as a result of early boarding, have campaigned for an end to all boarding schools, but adherents laud the benefits. Although full-time boarding still holds a certain cachet, it’s not compulsory now; weekly boarding is far more common and ‘flexi’ is extremely popular.
Ludgrove in Berkshire is one of only two prep schools in which all boys are full boarders, although they have long fortnightly exeats. Numbers
have remained steady in recent years with about 30 joining at year four (aged eight) each year. The headmaster’s wife, Sophie Barber, a bright and jolly lady whom you’d queue up to hand over your child to, says: ‘We always say that boys should board because they have such fun.’
Free time is spent playing ‘stump-in-the-yard’ (a Ludgrovian-style game of cricket) and birthdays are celebrated with a tray of the boy’s four favourite ice creams covered with Haribo, Flakes and candles. ‘They form hugely strong friendships living, working and playing together 24 hours a day,’ adds Mrs Barber. ‘Having the independence to choose how to spend their free time makes their confidence grow very quickly.’
Gavin Franklin, headmaster elect at Wellesley House, Kent, and currently a housemaster at Wellington College in Berkshire, agrees that boarding at a young age instills confidence. ‘Clearly it’s not a necessity, but there are many advantages: fun, opportunities, friendships and understanding of others. The staff get to know individuals better, which has the positive knock-on effect of teachers knowing specifically how to motivate and inspire them.’
Although it was normal to board from as young as six half a century ago, parental attitudes have changed hugely; some believe it’s cruel, akin to sending your child to prison. ‘It is young, but you only have to meet the eight year olds here to see they’re having a ball,’ rebuts Mrs Barber. ‘Yes, there are moments of sadness, but it’s definitely harder for the parents than for the boys, who are enjoying a new adventure surrounded by others with similar interests and irrepressible energy.
‘Very few boys are actually homesick—some might be unhappy from time to time, perhaps having lost a football boot or a pen, or have a wobble as work intensifies, but there is always someone they can talk to. Distraction is the best way to handle it; there’s always something to look forward to: crumble and custard, a football match or just a hot bath and stories with matron.’
Mr Franklin points out that, according to the latest census from the Boarding Schools’ Association (020– 7798 1580; www.boarding.org.uk), boarding among year-seven pupils and younger is significantly down on 10–15 years ago. The last census shows that only 4.6% (3,217) of the 70,637 children boarding were year seven or younger.
‘Although fees may play a part in this, it more than hints that parental attitudes have changed,’ he comments. ‘That said, some prep schools have strong boarding numbers—these are likely to be the schools with a clear purpose, identity and strategy that sing the benefits of all that boarding has to offer.’
This is where flexi-boarding comes in. Holmwood House in Essex has gradually moved to offering only flexi— one or two nights a week—due to lack of demand for longer stints. ‘Our style of boarding is not about sending your children away,’ explains headmaster Alexander Mitchell. ‘It’s more about giving them the occasional opportunity to extend themselves personally.
‘I would never agree with the view that boarding is cruel. It’s not simply a sleeping arrangement, it’s a different way of life. Children who board regularly develop superb qualities in terms of maturity, planning and organisation.’
One father of a pupil at Eagle House says that flexi-boarding has given his son the best of both worlds. ‘He’s come on so much in terms of independence and confidence, but he still has three weeknights and the weekends at home,’ he explains. ‘It also takes travel out of the equation—not spending two hours in the car a day.’
Although many people believe that boarding is only for natural extroverts, others insist that there’s no specific type and it can often help the shy. ‘A willingness to learn and to respect, accept and understand other people is an absolute must, as is kindness,’ Mr Franklin advises.
The key is the child’s desire to go. Mrs Macintosh remembers feeling emotional when her children announced they wanted to flexi-board. ‘Having initially recoiled in horror at the sight of dormitories on their first visit to the school, coming, as they did, from a London day school, both began asking “when can we board?” within a year,’ she says.
‘The main impediment to starting them off was emotional—watching them begin to not need you so much. Accepting that this is an inevitable part of their growing into (hopefully) fine young adults is a necessary step for parents, too.’