Colditz for kids, or dorms of de­light?

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Septem­ber is a time of pick­ing black­ber­ries, pack­ing away sun hats and get­ting back to re­al­ity after the sum­mer. But for me, as for many who went to board­ing school, it will for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with pack­ing suit­cases, sewing name tapes, pol­ish­ing shoes and emo­tional good­byes on the crunchy gravel of the school drive. I would strug­gle not to cry as I hugged my par­ents be­fore spend­ing 12 weeks away, their photographs at my bed­side and the pale-blue air­mail let­ters my only links with home.

Once at school I pushed home to the back of my mind. While sur­round­ing du­vets would trem­ble with the sobs of home­sick girls, I don’t re­call cry­ing. In fact, the 10 years I spent at board­ing school from the age of eight were mainly happy. When I look back, I’m sur­prised by how con­tent I was in what, on re­flec­tion, were bizarre cir­cum­stances.

My prep school looked idyl­lic, a beau­ti­ful Ja­cobean man­sion set in acres of Dorset fields where fat ponies grazed. In the sum­mer we could climb the large cedar tree and ride across the sur­round­ing hills. All very Enid Bly­ton.

But it had some ec­cen­tric­i­ties. The lava­to­ries had no doors, and we had to share baths. The food was abysmal: wiz­ened fruit, liver so tough you could scarcely cut it and, on Fri­days, “rub­bish pie” con­sist­ing of all the leftovers from the week, in­clud­ing eggshell and baked beans, topped with old cheese.

I was per­ma­nently hun­gry and would steal horse feed from the sta­bles. The head­mistress taught rid­ing and Latin. If you failed to con­ju­gate your verbs you were made to hop in the cor­ner recit­ing them un­til you got it right. Tuck was for­bid­den. At Sun­day lunch we got one boiled sweet and had to curt­sey to the head­mistress’s mother. And yet I loved it, although many friends were deeply un­happy and still shud­der at the men­tion of the school, call­ing it “Colditz for kids”.

I was rea­son­ably con­tent, too, at my se­nior school, another all-girls board­ing es­tab­lish­ment, although I found it hard­est to be away from home at the ages of 13 to 15. Those early years of ado­les­cence are dif­fi­cult for ev­ery­one.

I would have loved to go home in the evenings, to off­load the stresses or tri­umphs of the day to my par­ents, who, un­like my friends, had the per­spec­tive and ex­pe­ri­ence to of­fer sound ad­vice. Con­fid­ing in my housemistress never oc­curred to me. She had 49 other hor­monal teenage girls in her care and the ethos was “sort it out your­self”. Board­ers were sup­posed to be tough, self-suf­fi­cient.

De­spite some mis­giv­ings, when my hus­band (mostly a happy boarder) and I be­gan think­ing of se­nior schools for our son and daugh­ter, now aged 11 and nine, we vis­ited half a dozen board­ing schools, some that have flex­i­ble board­ing, and oth­ers that al­low pupils home only for ex­eats and half-term.

Nat­u­rally, all em­pha­sised the high qual­ity of “pas­toral care” for board­ers. “House­p­a­r­ents” are avail­able for a chat along with coun­sel­lors, tu­tors, ma­trons who dis­pense cud­dles and co­coa for the home­sick, cosy dor­mi­to­ries and “take­away But is it right to ex­pect chil­dren to take re­spon­si­bil­ity at an early age? And does it ac­tu­ally work?

Per­son­ally, I feel that the rou­tine and con­ve­nience of board­ing school, where ev­ery­thing is on tap and you never travel in­de­pen­dently, made me in­sti­tu­tion­alised. At univer­sity I en­vied those peo­ple who had been to day schools. They had trav­elled by bus, had Satur­day jobs – they had en­gaged with the real world, and had a far bet­ter idea of how it worked. I also worry that board­ing breeds in­su­lar­ity and a pres­sure to con­form.

The lack of what psy­chi­a­trists call a “se­cure base” – a loving home to come back to each night – can breed in­se­cu­rity. There is a grow­ing aware­ness of this prob­lem.

I may change my mind when my chil­dren are 16, which is per­haps a more nat­u­ral age for chil­dren to ac­quire some in­de­pen­dence but, for now, my old school trunk will stay in the at­tic.

The schools we liked best all of­fer day places. For some fam­i­lies, board­ing may be the right choice. But it is not so, I feel, for ours. Yes, the travel may be tir­ing for the chil­dren and they may not have en suite bath­rooms, but they will have their mum and dad. They’re not ready to leave the nest, and I cer­tainly don’t want the nest to be empty.

Hell’s belles: Annabel Ven­ning, be­low, was made to con­ju­gate Latin verbs while hop­ping - some­thing that wouldn’t be out of place at St Trinian’s

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