Lucky break for the boarder – Secrets of success in a 21st century boarding school
June 9th 2007
When our children returned from university and their travels to re-establish themselves at home, my wife and I found ourselves waving them goodbye. Now it was our turn; we were going away to boarding school.
After a career of over twenty years in the state sector, and the headship of a comprehensive in west London, I was on my way to Le Rosey in Switzerland, an exclusive boarding school, alma mater of The Shah of Iran, Prince Rainier, the Duke of Kent, the Aga Khan and King Farouk, and, more recently, of the sons and daughters of celebrities and household names.
We’d had a little to do with boarding schools and I was to run the English Department while my wife was soon to become housemother to sixty-three girls from over thirty countries.
There was the excitement of the holiday-like journey across northern France, down into Geneva and along the lake to the chateau that looks across towards Mont Blanc. There were new colleagues and a new way of conducting a school. For four days we settled ourselves into a large empty building and then there were trunks scattered along the corridors and sixty teenage voices filled the house.
What were they like, these new arrivals? Forget the celebrity names, and flashy dress. We found kids; quiet ones, assertive ones, excitable ones, one or two who were sad, and one or two who wanted to be devious. Some of them thought that they had style, some thought they were special, but within a few days they had been immersed in a social melting pot, and, although unchanged they were different; they fitted in, more or less. Some of them would turn out to be incredibly hardworking. They were fun, and so were some of their parents.
One boy, the adopted son of an American father, had a voice that closely resembled his father’s. I mentioned this one day.
“Oh,” said father. “That’s easy – DNA transfer.” I was puzzled.
“Through the palm of my hand.” I frowned. “Yeah, the DNA got transferred every time I paddled his butt.”
And if they had been our children, this varied multitude, would we have chosen a boarding school life for them? Parents who travel the world in their jobs have little choice but what about the rest of us? Most children thrive and make lifelong friends; a few don’t. How can you know that it will be right for your child; start by asking yourself whether they are ready to leave home.
Although their departure suits you, it might not suit them. If they have travelled or stayed away happily with friends and family, they are probably ready, but sending them away from an unhappy home can make things worse for then they will concern themselves with unhappy situations left behind.
A colleague once asked Henri whether his father was going to visit him during the term. His replied that his father, another household name, spent all his spare time providing him with half brothers and sisters. At fourteen, he knew of his father’s reputation and, superficially, dealt with it in a very matter of fact manner. However, the cost of coping with his father’s indifference revealed itself in aggression towards other students and Henri, who was underneath all this a naturally decent boy, had to leave.
A second question: are they ready to develop the self-discipline that will be required at boarding school, when you are out of range, or will they simply follow the rest of the sheep. Ask yourself, when temptation beckons, a door left open, a teacher distracted, will they be leading the way or watching and reflecting for a moment before deciding that now is not the time to pull a stunt? Can they learn to side with an under-dog, can they be honest about themselves, can they manage to share a room?
Boarding schools vary a great deal, from long-established, traditional public schools such as Harrow, Eton, Rugby and Westminster, to Bedales with its non-conformist, liberal arts feel and the more modern and the academically non-selective Millfield where pupils live on a university style campus.
Then there are state boarding schools where the education is provided free and parents pay for the boarding element and international schools offering opportunities to live a life that is rooted in a practical appreciation of other cultures, where students exchange food and languages. They are powerful institutions best used with care and sensitivity to help your children. They are places where the best is more than you reasonably expect when their friends can reassure, warn and encourage them.
When you visit to choose a school for your child, be like one of the shrewdest headmasters I ever worked for; listen to the adults, talk to the adults, but watch the faces of the children.