Comfortable bedrooms with cuddly toys and family photos, a wide choice of evening activities, extra help with studies and supported music practice, a chat over a hot chocolate. If I were to mention the words ‘boarding school’ to you, I’d wager that those weren’t the associations that immediately come to mind. Instead, you might still be thinking long dormitories of iron frame beds, boys in striped winceyette pyjamas and, while we’re on the subject, aren’t there cold baths and early morning runs? Or have we now moved to images of weird and wonderful experiences for orphans or special-born (wizard) children in remote locations? Not quite so unwelcoming but equally unlikely to be the environment for your child.
I would suggest that, the major reasons why parents might now choose a boarding option for their younger child is not the change of environment – admittedly, unrecognisable from that was on offer when my generation was at school – but the way in which children and families sample a boarding school.
When I first started my teaching career in the early 1990s, there was an elitist view of boarding that suggested anything other than seven days a week at school wasn’t really boarding. Flexi-boarding was more like babysitting and could only be unsettling for the children. Is it any wonder then that the number of children who are full-time boarders in Scotland has tailed off significantly. While there are still families for whom distance, family circumstances or a faith in the independence and confidence that boarding schools generate in their children, there are fewer families who will commit their younger children to three week spells away from home.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are also nervous about admitting that we make decisions for our own convenience rather than in the best interests of our children. Rightly or wrongly, so many more of our decisions are child-driven. We will travel long distances during unsociable hours to give our children the best experience and we will rarely add up the miles or hours spent ferrying children from one activity to another.
As a result, many families who are now choosing a boarding experience are doing so because of what it offers their children. They will look at the hours spent in the car, often as a passenger for the benefit of a sibling, as time that could be spent better elsewhere. They have recognised that paid childcare very rarely matches the experience of being involved in curricular and extra-curricular activities, managed by teachers, and in the company of their school friends. They value what their children gain from organising some of their life under the guidance of well qualified and (let’s be honest) more dispassionate professionals. They do sometimes admit that it’s easier not having to manage the burden of homework or music practice so that time at home is genuine family time.
Parents are opting into a boarding experience but want it to have the flexibility to suit their family lives – be it occasional evenings, weekends or a regular pattern of one or two nights a week building up to weekly boarding when your child is ready for it. At Cargilfield, we call it ‘Tailored Boarding’ and, although it may be more convenient for busy families, they are opting for it because they can see the benefits for their children….who are, after all, the people that are usually driving this choice. While this may be what I’ve learned over many years working in schools, it has taken me many fewer years as a parent to realise it.