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

Country Life Every Week - - Schools -

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.’

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