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To board or not to board – is that the question?

Traditionally, heartless British parents sent their little darlings off to school at 7 or 8 and didn’t give them another thought until it was time for university. Tom Brown’s schooldays? Go to the bottom of the class. Cold showers, initiation ceremonies and enforced runs are more or less a thing of the past.

So why board? It depends on where you live. If you happily live near a good state or independent day school, and that is the most rewarding solution either morally or financially, then don’t even think about it. If you live in the depths of the country or overseas, or both work long hours, then boarding may be your answer.

But beware, boarding schools are not a universal panacea. Putting your child in boarding school implies partnership and trust between school and parent. It is no use sending your utterly revolting child away to school and assuming you will get an angel back at half-term: boarding schools can, and will, expel your child for a variety of reasons (drugs, serious bad behaviour, bullying etc) and you will probably have no recourse. So think carefully before you embark on what can be a seriously expensive process. This can often be ameliorated by scholarships, bursaries, state boarding schools, kindly grandparents, employment benefits or Forces’ Continuity of Education allowance. In the case of the last you can’t just chop and change schools at will but must stick with the one you first thought of.

Do not be taken in by charming heads or their marketing genies entertaining you with PowerPoint presentations and handing out DVDs (always taken on sunny days and always displaying the best of everything). Again, give some thought to what sort of character you want your child to turn out to be. Boarding schools, because they enfold your child for so much of the year, will make a substantial contribution to their character, and different boarding schools mould character in very different ways. You will never pick this up from the school’s marketing material: they all want to appear blandly wonderful.

The Good Schools Guide does its best to capture the character of a school, and you should be able to get a taste of it when you visit. Have a clear view, too, of where you want your child to go on to next. It is easier to get a guide to whether a school is the right place for this ambition: all schools publish lists of where their pupils go on to, and if the education that they provide and the spirit that they inculcate is capable of taking your child where you want them to go, then other children will have gone that way before, probably in some numbers.

Meet matron

When looking for potential schools, be sure to meet your child’s likely houseparents and the matron as well as the head. These three are the ones who really make a difference to the day-to- day happiness of a boarder. And if your child is to have a tutor who stays with them throughout their time at school, meet them too. Get the home phone number of whoever has charge of your child’s welfare, and ask if you can call at any time.

Ask how parent and child communicate. Weekly letter? Or nightly emails and a mobile phone? This is definitely something to talk to pupils about when you visit.

Be relentlessly questioning about any requirements which are particular to you. If your child has special educational needs (and there are many boarding schools in the UK which make superb provision for these) you will need to know exactly what is on offer, and how the school proposes to make you part of the decision-making process on such questions as whether to include or exclude your child from particular lessons. How good are the EFL lessons, and how much extra do they cost? What provision do they make for your faith? Don’t just take this on trust; talk to a co-religionist who is already at the school and find out what really happens.

Some problems that are easily tackled by local parents become much harder to deal with when a parent is distant. Discover whether matron will replenish (and mend) school (and home) clothes and if she can do it out of the secondhand shop. At the very same time you can be sussing out whether matron, and the under matrons, are cuddly, or moustachioed dragons who grump. If you want full boarding, find out how many others of your child’s age are there at weekends. What activities are laid on out of hours? Are boarders are allowed into town at weekends? How does the school control what they get up to? How can parents ditto? It helps a lot if a child has a bolt hole in town where they can go rather than be dragged into some den of iniquity by their friends because they have no alternative. Do you have a friend or relative who is willing to let them have a key?

The same problem of distance applies to bullying. Being able to recharge courage and self-confidence at home makes a child much more resilient in the face of low-level bullying than a child who has no such resort. Don’t be satisfied with the mere absence of stories about bullying; look for stories (particularly from gentler pupils) about how well bullying is dealt with.

If you leave boarding until your child has done his/her GCSEs or equivalent they’ll have developed a reasonable degree of maturity and independence. Many schools now have expanded sixth forms and happily take children either from the UK (state or other independent schools) or from further afield for a two-year sixth form course leading to A levels or an IB and university entrance globally. Take care to suit the school to the student: the range of styles is particularly broad at this age, from the disciplinarian academic to the ‘almost university’.

State and international boarding

State boarding schools are a well-kept secret. They charge for board and lodging, but not tuition, so are vastly cheaper than their private counterparts – usually between £10,000 and £15,000 a year. Some have only a small number of boarding places, in some around half the school boards; some are academically selective, some not; many have facilities to rival the independent sector. For more information, take at look at www.sbsa.org.uk.

Remember that not all boarding schools are in the UK. Most European countries have one or two. Switzerland has some which follow the English academic syllabus (although many ‘Swiss boarding schools’ no longer live up to their almost mythical reputation for academic excellence), and so do many of the Middle and Far Eastern countries. Well-known British schools such as Dulwich College, Sherborne School and North London Collegiate are opening sister schools abroad in increasing numbers. Some follow the traditional British A level syllabus and some the IB. Ditto Australia and New Zealand (which have several really great boarding schools). There’s less boarding in the Americas, though Canada and especially the US have a surprising number of very good ones, and there are a few in South America — particularly in former British colonies. And then there’s Africa. There are schools in South Africa that appear to be so British the only real difference is the minuscule fees (but caveat emptor ... as is true anywhere, there are still cultural differences beneath the surface).

Our writers have experienced boarding schools as expats and as locals, as members of families who have used boarding schools for generations and as parents who are tackling boarding for the first time. All of them confirm that, in the words of one editor, ‘boarding schools can be brilliant, children make friends for life, share the experiences and cultures, and learn tolerance for their fellow man’. That said, there are still many children who end up miserable: you need to take care to match the child to the school, and to watch how things develop thereafter. It should be totally obvious if things are going well.

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