“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.”
The boarding experience has transformed in the last two decades and boarding offers the time and space for young people to transform too.
Firstly, a word on the boarding experience. 21stCentury boarding is very much a home from home. Comfortable rooms (single or twin), restaurant standard food, greater privacy, access to school facilities late into the evening, endless birthday or other notable event celebrations, multi-national communities with a strong British core and, essentially, a family-friendly ethos, are the order of the day.
Many boarding houses have “House Parents” rather than the traditional Housemaster or Housemistress; it’s a family-sized team effort. Many boarders go home at weekends after five days of study and a Saturday morning of sport and parents typically live less than an hour or two away; close enough to call in if required and to support from a touchline or audience, but far enough to allow a sense of self-sufficiency and independence.
For those in school at weekends, there is a smorgasbord of activities, trips, study support, etc. that would shame many all-inclusive holidays. Again, the family touch is important with equally good weekend food - for those at my school even Sunday Lunch with the Headmaster and his wife (they enjoy it, honestly)!
In addition to fostering friendship, active involvement and preparation for university, boarding schools are in-tune with the welfare of pupils. Boarding schools are just as concerned with our teenagers’ mental health as they are their physical health. Counsellors, peer mentors, mental health trained House staff, school doctors and nurses are just as common as History teachers and hockey coaches.
In other words, we seek to replicate the best of home life whilst still preparing young people for the independent challenges of university life; forging friendships that really do last a lifetime. Most former pupils, I know, remember their House parents, matrons and tutors far more affectionately than most of their academic teachers.
However, boarding schools aren’t hotels, nor is a night in the House akin to a sleepover. The core function of a boarding house is a natural extension of the school’s ethos and values.
Boarding provides a structured routine with homework (prep), social time (talking, not texting) and strict lights out – without mobile phones!
Students work far more productively when everyone is working around them and with academic support on-hand. Once prep is finished students are encouraged, indeed expected, to make use of the gym, the swimming pool, the playing fields, the music practice rooms or the DT workshop and so on, staffed by teaching or support staff late into the evening. In my school the gym is open for boarders from 6.30am until 10pm staffed by a team of strength and conditioning coaches to help the 1stXV rugby player, the 1stVII netballer, the aspiring triathlete or the U14 Hockey goalkeeper trying to return from injury.
In addition to the obvious regular activities of a boarder there are the more seasonal advantages. Cast and crew of the school play, the sailing team taking advantage of light evenings, the choir leading up to the festive season – they all benefit from being able to stay in school beyond lessons, participate and then remain in school. No late night parent pick-ups required! Indeed the whole issue of the school commute ceases to be an issue. By the time a day pupil has returned home many a boarder will have had got changed, had supper, relaxed with their friends and made some headway into their prep. In some cases they even get a relative lie-in the following morning. Full boarding, weekly boarding and flexi-boarding (one or two nights per week) offer an unparalleled educational and social opportunity.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have watched teenagers transform as a result of their time in boarding. Disorganised pupils have become more organised, hesitancy has been replaced by greater confidence and those struggling academically or physically have made astonishing progress, responding to the support and time freely given to them in their boarding house and boarding school.
Rather than siding with Ferris Bueller, most of my boarders are more likely to consider Gandalf’s words in The Fellowship of the Ring:
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”