When parents and grandparents think about boarding schools, what images spring to mind? The close-knit community of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, the magic of Hogwarts enjoyed by Harry Potter – or their own memories of boarding?
The problem with the last, for too many former boarders, is that their experience was not positive. Whether they were themselves “sent away” to school for months on end, or they experienced or witnessed unacceptable behvaiour, it has left them unwilling to “inflict” the same on a new generation. On the face of it, we have an uphill struggle ahead as we look to address the marginal 0.8% decrease in boarding pupils reported by the Independent Schools Council’s 2017 census.
Speak to today’s boarders, though, and a very different picture emerges. Beneath the headlines, there has been a quiet revolution in attitudes to boarding, and it’s been entirely pupil-led.
Boarders describe a pleasant rhythm of close friendships, ordered days, supervised study and exciting activities, built upon a solid bedrock of pastoral support. School leadership teams scratching their heads over finding a positive message to promote boarding should, I suggest, look to their boarders for inspiration.
At my own school, we’re finding that an increasing number of students are taking advantage of our flexi boarding and extended day options, and enjoy it so much, they ask to increase their stays.
The big advantage, they tell us, is continuity. There’s no long commute, and no adjustment to and from the stresses of modern family life. They can stroll across to their boarding house after school, raid the fridge and chill out while chatting about their day, then spend some time on homework before relaxing for the evening.
Key to this “home from home” atmosphere is the real and sustained effort by housemasters, housemistresses and their teams to not only provide a welcoming nest, but also to make themselves available to share the ups and downs of the day.
They don’t try to be boarders’ parents, but they do offer the daily individual attention and guidance that is ever more important in what can be a demanding and hectic world for families. Several reports have warned that parents’ smartphone use is leaving children feeling neglected, for example; the fact boarding staff are on duty means this situation never arises.
Because prep is supervised, pupils don’t fall prey to the home distractions which might tempt them, especially if they go home to an empty house, or return tired after a long journey. Switching off from homework to gaze out of the window or catch up on social media simply isn’t an option - they have to knuckle down. Having teachers on hand can also be useful if they’re faced with a difficult assignment.
Necessary routine, consistent boundaries and positive atmosphere provide an ideal setting for growing minds to thrive. They can concentrate on being young; studying, playing, and building relationships with their peers.
This consistent wrap-around care, along with learning to live and work together harmoniously, builds self-confidence, resilience and an emotional maturity that sets boarders apart long before they leave for university or the workplace.
At the recent Boarding School Association annual conference, BSA chair Leo Winkley told us the “remarkable, perhaps even revolutionary” change in pastoral care and wellbeing at boarding schools must be conveyed to parents. I couldn’t agree more – and I’d suggest that introducing pupils to modern boarding through a flexible offering is the most effective way of finding champions to spread the word that modern boarding is a world away from the experience of old.
By Mark Ronan, Headmaster, Pocklington School