Today’s boarding experience is a vastly different, infinitely nuanced scenario, focussed on facilitating a nurturing space for young people to acquire a range and depth of life skills, and become the best version of themselves, writes Anne Schauffer.
In almost every possible way, boarding establishments bear little relation to those of yesteryear. They go back centuries of course, initially to little cloistered religious institutions with students isolated from society, then evolving into military-type academies, and eventually, into more secular establishments. Consultation with the children wasn’t on the radar.
“In the past, the decision to send a child to boarding school was born out of circumstance – no suitable ‘day’ option close to home,” says Peter Storrar, Director of Advancements at Hilton College. “Nowadays, many families have access to quality schooling on their doorstep so, in that sense, the necessity for boarding has (for some) diminished.” But necessity is by no means the only driver: “For many boys, boarding is more effective and appropriate than it has ever been,” says Peter. “Traffic, cellphones, social media, pollution, crime, malls and time-consuming commutes can undermine the quality of an adolescent’s education. Teenagers are far better served spending their time engaging with their peers face-to-face, enjoying the outdoors, and discovering more about themselves in a healthy and safe environment.”
Clearly, life today is very different, with time being a scarce commodity, particularly for working parents. It’s often a massive challenge to protect children while still giving them freedom – elements like limiting screen and mall time isn’t easy when you aren’t there.
Thomas Barry, Deputy Principal of Northwood, says “Learners worldwide attend Northwood, but many families in the community want the option of sending their sons to a boarding school with the convenience of simultaneously playing a more hands-on role. The independence and responsibility that comes from being away from home encourages boys to solve their own problems and make their own decisions.”
Megan de Beer is an integrative psychologist who, for the past 20 years, has run her annual course ‘Strong Mothers, Strong Sons’ in top boys boarding schools countrywide: “Things have changed radically over the years. All boys’ boarding schools are far more sensitive and open to boys’ emotional intelligence.” For Megan, the huge positive is freedom and safety for South African children: “The powerful, natural teenage impulse for independence and freedom, to be separate from their parents, be their own person, discover who they are … is part of that experimentation heading into adulthood.” For many, boarding school is the perfect space in which that can play out ‘safely’.
Is boarding school for every child? “No,” says Paul Bushell, educational psychologist and author: “The decision to send a child to a boarding school needs careful consideration – every child is different. For many parents this means suspending their own hopes and dreams, and exploring how this decision will maximise their child’s holistic development. There is value in having conversations with the child concerned, and with personal and professional connections who know the child and/or understand boarding schools.”
Educational psychologist Sally Davies works full time at St Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls in Kloof, as well as in her private practice. For her, “The child/teenager must show a keen interest and eagerness to go into boarding. Cases when parents force or coerce their child – directly or indirectly – may result in a failed boarding experience. Those families who believe ‘your grandparents and I went, so you must go’, could be making a large mistake.”
For Hilton College, oversubscribed as they are, Peter says “It’s far more important that each boy who comes here, has selected us. In some families, it’s the parent’s decision, others leave it up to the boy, and others make a collective decision. We want to hear that the boy himself is up for it.” Hilton offers numerous ‘sleep-overs’, so the boy gets a sense of boarding life there, but equally, so the school can advise parents as to whether it’s the right place for their son.
Northwood’s Thomas Barry feels differently. He believes all boys are suited to boarding school: “Some find the initial transition a bit difficult, but due to the support, camaraderie and brotherhood created, they quickly form strong connections and feel right at home. Northwood BE’s main vision is that it becomes a home-away-from-home.”
The theme which comes up strongly is relationships. Peter Storrar believes, “You form relationships in the boarding space you won’t make in a day school – the depth, as well as what and how much you learn from others.” He adds, “In the classroom, you might not ever find yourself in a situation where you’re prompted to chat to someone you might not necessarily have chatted to. In the different BE houses, we are very deliberate about whom we put together … we’re trying to create as much diversity as possible. We have learners from around the world, raised in both extremely privileged and extremely disadvantaged circumstances.
This plays into the important life skills arena. “Traditionally, when you go out there into the world, it’s human nature to hang out with people who are like you. The boarding experience shows boys the value of forming relationships with people different from you. Our hope is that when our boys go out into society, they reach out to others quite different from themselves and form relationships they might not necessarily have formed.”
“Boarding certainly teaches boys how to deal with people from many different cultures and walks of life,” says Northwood’s Thomas Barry, “and it encourages them to manage their own affairs. Boarding creates bonds that last a lifetime. They discover strong connections that result from the warm family environment. We believe boarding should complement, not replace family life and we ensure open lines of communication with our families at all times.”
Sally Davies feels strongly that, “For any family to consider boarding, there should be the willingness of the child, parents and institution to work in unison to ensure a successful and thriving boarding experience. All parties need to be open, honest, transparent, and to communicate any concerns and questions. A boarding school may have the care of the child Monday to Friday, but this never replaces a parents’ role and responsibility.”
What about the numerous stereotypical views of boarding school, such as who’s best suited, bullying, homesickness or unhappy home environments? Clearly, the size and depth of the support structures and staff vigilance today is light years away from what they used to be. For Sally, if there’s a keenness by the child to attend, there’s no checklist of requisite personality traits: “Forget the idea that the extrovert, sporty, outgoing, leaders will be successful boarders, and the introvert, more culturally inclined, shy, followers won’t.” Peter concurs: “There are stereotypical extroverts and introverts who don’t do well, and others who do. You can be that softly spoken quieter boy, and be happy and succeed.”
What about unhappy home scenarios? Removing children from adult stresses can be advantageous, particularly if the child wants that. Sally Davies feels, “There are cases whereby I would actively recommend boarding, even if only temporarily, where it becomes a safe haven giving all parties time to heal. What needs to be avoided is for a child to ever feel ‘sent away’ or abandoned.”
Clearly, logistics plays a role in choosing a boarding establishment. If your child is sporty with early hours/weekends devoted to sport, a boarding school with a strong sports department works well. Equally, for children who are passionate about drama, music or art with after-hours rehearsals, concerts and dedicated studios, a school with strength in those areas can offer a wonderful boarding experience. Megan de Beer suggests that parents do extensive homework, not only around the school ethos and whether it has a focus on their child’s speciality, but equally, how well subscribed that department is: “Teenagers need their group of friends to feel safe and happy. This is where they find their tribe. They get their sense of belonging from their friends.”
For Thomas Barry, there are so many advantages to boarding school life, from academics to the daily routine: “By the end of their tenure at Northwood, boys will have learnt time management, organisational skills and interpersonal skills. Their ability to focus in a group and develop coping mechanisms in different situations are skills that will assist them throughout life. The boys are expected to take responsibility for themselves, their personal hygiene, their living space and the impact of their behaviour on others.”
Ultimately, today’s boarding schools have very clear ideas on how to facilitate a safe yet expansive space where young people can be the best version of themselves. Each school will inevitably have a different ethos and varying strengths – it’s up to that trilogy of parent, child and school to gauge the right one.
Harry B chose to attend Hilton College. Yes, there was a family connection, but that wasn’t his key motivation: “I was looking for a fresh start and a place where I could feel freer, yet involved in a community. Unlike day school, boarding has allowed me to form deep bonds with students and people around me because I’m constantly exposed to them.”
Bella B had been at her previous school for eight years, and really wanted a change, an opportunity for growth, and a chance to make new friends. Together with her parents, she made the decision to board at to St Anne’s DSG: “Boarding school was not only what I’d imagined – it was a lot tougher. I didn’t know how much I’d miss my parents, and what an adjustment it would be making new friends and living with them. Boarding school taught me that I was capable of doing things on my own and solving my problems without the help of my parents. Every day it got easier, and I matured. The things I learned there have helped me immensely in adjusting quickly to university life.”
“If you regard your son as curious, enthusiastic and brave, then he is likely to do very well boarding at Hilton. That is not to say that he won’t feel nervous or take some time to find his feet, but our most successful boys are determined to give this adventure their best shot, are prepared to acknowledge and confront their fears, and are prepared to take themselves out of their comfort zone and form relationships with kids from different backgrounds to theirs. They’re also prepared to show vulnerability when they have a bad day or bad week.”