Independent School Parent, Autumn 2015, living at school offers a longer day for both learning and play in a nurturing environment, writes Genevieve Ford, deputy headmistress at leading independent school Downe House, Berkshire.
If you are planning to send your daughter to boarding school, one of the first questions you should be asking before you start your school search is whether boarding itself is the best choice. I joined Downe House in 2004, first as a housemistress, and then as head of Upper School, before taking on the role of deputy headmistress (boarding), where I am responsible for the residential welfare of the girls in our care.
I’m convinced that boarding offers girls the opportunity to gain much more from their education. Several schools now offer flexi-boarding – this can mean that the pupils only live on site during the working week, or that they sleep in school only on the occasional night. While this can be convenient for some parents, at Downe House our girls are “full-boarders” and we believe that we have a distinct advantage when it comes to ensuring that our girls receive a broad and valuable educational experience. One of the greatest benefits of full boarding is the gift of time.
The extended day allows longer for learning, enrichment, fun and friendship. Downe House girls like to get involved in lots of different activities and living at the school means that it is easier for them to make time to do more. They can fit in extra tennis lessons, rehearsals, dance classes and still have time to socialise with their friends.
Teachers also have the opportunity to get to know each individual girl extremely well. The staff at Downe understand that the girls in our care have been entrusted to us by their parents, who hope and expect that we will nurture every aspect of their daughters’ development while they are at school. We feel very privileged in our roles and work closely with parents and the girls to ensure that there is strong communication and mutual trust. The girls have the benefit of a strong network of staff and peers to help them to navigate those complicated and challenging teenage years.
This year, we have been thrilled to see the first of our Ten Year Vision projects reach completion. Our new Lower School boarding houses opened this September and builds on our already excellent home-away-from-home boarding provision, providing spacious bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and common rooms for all girls in their first two years.
The environment is designed to nurture friendships and this is cemented by the term that our Year Eight girls spend in the beautiful Périgord Noir, in France, at our smaller “farmhouse” school in the rural commune of Veyrines-de-Domme.
Although Downe House has wonderful facilities, including an indoor swimming pool and a specialist performing arts centre, our Ten Year Vision is designed to ensure that we remain at the forefront of boarding education. On this note, we have already begun the next project in our development plan – the creation of a state-of-the-art centre for learning. This will provide the girls with a contemporary library and a vibrant digital learning centre, a state-of-the-art auditorium, as well as art gallery areas and a café.
It is important that learning is not limited to the classroom and with this new facility the girls will enjoy a taste of university life as well as a gaining a brand new place to spend time together.
A school’s culture holds a huge influence over what a child believes they can achieve. In a girls’ boarding school, the students benefit from a culture that encourages them to stretch themselves, that tells them it is important for their fulfilment that they give back to society and that supports them in their ambitions.
Our girls benefit greatly from an established and extensive network of alumnae who have gone out into the world and have much advice to offer. The girls learn compassion, resilience, communication, collaboration and creativity. They are outward looking and they are aspirational. This allows them to reach their full potential and prepares them for the next phase of their life.