The symptoms of what we call being a Boarding School Survivor are varied and complex. They include difficulties in relationships and parenting, workaholism, inability to relax, isolation, being experienced as a bully, substance abuse, a sense of failure, as well as physical, sleep, and sexual problems…
Such is the trauma allegedly caused by attending a British boarding school… and certainly many of the families I have advised over the years (especially from around the Mediterranean!) seem to hold similar views. Even in the UK, many families feel that boarding is wacky or elitist or past its sell-by date.
Does boarding have a place in the modern world? You will find many articles that answer that question by drawing our attention to their ‘excellence’: their excellent academic results, their excellent sports facilities and so on. I agree with the label, but it does not by itself make a case for boarding. This mini-essay will ask: what is the actual purpose of boarding school? What makes it a distinctive choice for parents?
I believe the case for boarding rests on three distinct purposes.
Purpose 1) Boarding schools allow parents to entrust their children to those who have been raising children longer than they have.
The Latin origin of the word ‘educate’ is not, as some like to think, ‘educere’ (to lead/draw out) but ‘educare’: to rear. To choose boarding schooling is to delegate a large part of that rearing to experienced and, most importantly, dispassionate teachers. Teachers, male and female, are often called “Masters” in boarding schools because the title once described their minimum qualification (a Masters in Liberal Arts) but, in my mind, it is a title justified more by their mastery of rearing children. Good teachers have often instructed thousands of children. Sometimes this leads to complacency; more often, it leads to a disposition that does not treat every childish whim as an urgent need to be satisfied.
James Delingpole made this point well in an article explaining why he sent his children to boarding school:
Jim was bright but a slacker and could easily have gone off the rails. But he was steered through a difficult adolescence by an inspirational housemaster – Dennis Christley – who’d dealt with hundreds more teenage boys than I ever had and who, by administering just the right amount of carrot and stick at just the right moments, turned Jim into the charming, rounded, socially well‑adjusted delight he is today.
Historian and Anthropologist Professor Alan Macfarlane explains (in Letters to Lily) that, even before the popularity of boarding schools, the English believed in the importance of sending their children away from home at a young age:
Long ago, much to the surprise of Italian and French visitors, it was noticed that many of the English sent their children off very young (from as early as age seven) to be brought up in another household. If they were rich, they were pages or ladies-in-waiting; if poor, servants or apprentices. The English said they did this because unrelated strangers or friends could exercise good discipline in a way that parents found very difficult…Later this developed into the sort of education that I had: boarding schools from the age of eight to eighteen with parents abroad in India whom I hardly saw. My grandparents, with whom I lived, disciplined me. Meanwhile my parents were like grandparents who could show an uncomplicated and high level of affection.
Is this purpose still necessary? Absolutely. Parents so often tell me how hard it is to be authority figures to their children, especially to teenagers. They describe the nightly battles with homework, the constant setting and re-adjusting of curfews. Parents in the West have probably never been on such intimate terms with their children; they have also probably never found it harder to exercise the discipline that is demanded by paternal and maternal love. Boarding schools help parents enlist the support of experts who, like them, have their child’s best long-term interests at heart but who, unlike them, have enough experience and emotional distance to know how those best interests are realized.
Purpose 2) Their immersive cultures are able to exert a more profound influence than day schools.
The reason I started this blog is because I believe boarding schools have the power to enact an educational philosophy of a comprehensiveness that is denied to day schools. Their longer school day and sometimes isolated campuses allow the fostering of a culture that can in some respects be insulated from ordinary affairs.
Under the wrong stewardship, boarding schools can foment the most hideous cultures. Witness the many British boarding schools in the nineties and their problems with bullying and drug addiction. By the same token, though, a well governed and purposeful boarding school culture can prove to be a powerful countervailing wind against the narcissistic and trivial preoccupations that are typical of teenage life.
What is this culture? As stated in the Purpose of my blog, despite the differences of individual schools, I believe that there is such a thing as the ideal British boarding school culture, and that it is something to which most boarding schools aspire. At its best, it is a culture that pays due consideration to the head, the heart and the body; that promotes the virtues of selflessness, teamwork and responsibility; and that stands as a bulwark against the appeals of materialism, cynicism and self-importance. This last word is the most crucial for me. By sublimating a pupil’s ego into a culture that is in every sense larger than itself, the best boarding schools can help to train pupils in that most rare virtue of humility.
At a boarding school, such a culture can be fostered from the moment a pupil wakes to the moment he or she goes to sleep. One Eton housemaster, now the Headmaster of a top day school, lamented the fact to me that his school “basically stopped educating at 5pm”. Etonians, he said, were being educated for at least another four hours per day.
Do any boarding schools really exert a more benign cultural influence than that provided at home? How can you tell? School websites and Open Days can reveal a school’s culture, if a somewhat manicured version, but perhaps the best way to see a culture in action is via the raft of fly-on-the-wall documentaries that are now available, most of them for free on YouTube:
- Eton: 1967; 1991; 1993; 2013
- Harrow: 2001; 2013
- Radley: 1979 – 2013
- Ampleforth: 1990s
- Britain’s Youngest Boarders
The changes through the years are fascinating (do Eton boys still sit around “declaiming” with their pals before class?) but more telling to my mind is the cultural thread that runs through them all over the past half-century. It’s a thread that runs back until at least Thomas Arnold’s day at Rugby. It is hard, though of course not impossible, to foster at home.
Purpose 3) They encourage independence.
This purpose is the most popular motivation cited by prospective parents and pupils. Of course, independence feeds out of the two purposes mentioned above: being away from one’s parents and being part of a strong and positive culture. It is so self-evident a merit of boarding school life that I shall limit myself to just a few observations.
Firstly, in what ways is the independence learned at boarding school different from that learned at day school? Boarding pupils are physically independent from their parents; if they have been put through a rigorous curriculum, let us hope that they will become independent in mind and thought too. I think the independence that boarding schools most aim for, though, is the independence from simple or immediate gratification. Boarding schools train habits very well. It is through undertaking – and surviving – unpleasant experiences that we grow up. From sharing a room with someone you don’t get on with to giving up one’s free evenings to direct the house play to any number of petty annoyances that fill a typical boarding day, boarding schools are ideally conceived to help children grow up being able to cope with, to transcend, the petty stresses and irritations of life.
Secondly, ‘independence’ is not meaningful without its corollary: ‘responsibility.’ Boarding schools return the trust that parents have placed in them…by placing in their children trust to behave responsibly. Sometimes this means trusting older children to run various parts of a school; at other times, it means trusting children simply to use their time wisely. Ex-boarding school pupils are often remarked upon for their confidence (John Locke said that boarding school boys were “bolder and better able to bustle and shift among boys”); it is a confidence derived from exercising responsibility from a reasonably young age. In recent times, there has been a bit of a tendency in boarding schools to micro-manage pupils’ “schedules” (a horrid word), which is a shame. If the school culture is right, schools should have enough confidence in pupils who have earned their independence to use it responsibly.
The result of these three primary purposes is an environment ripe for one of school’s secondary, but most profoundly rewarding, purposes: friendship. Boarding schools encourage that rare breed of lifelong friendship that can only be forged by the sharing of intense life-changing experience. As Hilary Moriarty, Director of Boarding Schools’ Association says, “ask any boarder what has been the best thing about boarding, and they are likely to say, ‘Being with friends,’ whatever their parents may think about academic excellence.”
The Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.boarding.org.uk/356/why-boarding-
My Further Reading list: http://www.willorrewing.com/reading-list
Boarding Schools’ Value-added: http://www.ukboardingschools.com/advice/value-added-learning/
State Boarding Schools’ Association: http://www.sbsa.org.uk/