A Parents Guide to Boarding
Once a parent has chosen the right boarding school, it is vital they consider how best to ensure that their child settles in quickly and successfully. Sam Kilgour looks at the common anxieties and how to overcome them.
For some families the decision to choose a boarding school is a simple one. It may be influenced by family tradition or by geography: parents living abroad or working in the services may choose boarding for practical reasons. For some, boarding will be a new experience for both the parents and child, and boarding may not have been a first choice. Many parents consider boarding when a suitable day school cannot be found, or when a child has particular educational needs that cannot be met nearer to home. Whatever the circumstances, choosing a school is only the beginning of a successful boarding relationship: the time from confirming a place to the beginning of term is vital for preparing all family members for the move to boarding at a new school. Getting it right from the start is important for everyone. Be realistic about boarding and don't make the mistake of building it up to such an extent that the reality can never match the expectation. Jonathan Milton, Headmaster of Westminster Abbey Choir School, points out: 'It doesn't help children to believe they are coming to a holiday camp only to discover it's actually a school!'
For those who haven't experienced boarding before there will undoubtedly be a few anxieties as well as excitement at the prospect of midnight feasts and tuck. Addressing these concerns before the start of the first term will do wonders for your child's confidence. Preparation is crucial and it is important to talk through how you and your child will handle any issues that crop up. Make a list and, if need be, contact the school to ask how they prefer to deal with homesickness or fear of the dark. Most schools will hold induction days for new pupils and many will have a trial boarding night. Attending these events ensures that children have an opportunity to familiarise themselves with their new environment and that you have the opportunity to meet other parents and be reassured that your child will settle in happily. Try to ensure that your child is used to spending nights away from home, with relatives and friends and that, whatever their age, they are used to looking after themselves and their belongings.
Children who have experienced boarding at preparatory school will be familiar with the routine of living away from home for part or all of the term. For them the questions may be about their new environment and a new community: 'Will I make friends?' or 'How many people will be in my dormitory?' The transition to boarding in a senior school environment will undoubtedly raise some issues. Encourage experienced boarders to think back to their first term of boarding at prep school. What can they remember from that time? What can they learn from that experience? Remember that senior schools are often much larger both in size and in terms of pupil numbers than their feeder schools. One parent, who preferred not be named, commented that the transition to senior school was more difficult than expected for one of his sons. 'We simply hadn't factored in that the change from a small homely prep school to a much bigger and more imposing senior school would be so hard. In hindsight our younger son needed much more preparation for that move than he did when he began boarding at prep school.'
Regardless of whether your child has been a boarder before it is inevitable that you will worry about how your child will cope with their new school, how you will feel when your child is upset or homesick and what you will do if there is a problem. Gleaning as much information as possible from the new school's information pack or handbook will help enormously. Where possible speak to friends or family who have already weathered the transition to first-time boarding or managed a change of school with their boarding child. Do ask whether the school can put you in touch with a current boarding parent. Many schools have a nominated 'boarding rep' to talk you through the process and provide the unofficial nuggets of information that won't be in the official handbook. One such parent is Carol Hyett, whose daughters were both boarders at the Royal School Hampstead from the ages of eight and ten respectively. Carol believes it is important not to feel guilty about leaving your child. She says 'As a parent you will have made the choice to board for the right reasons - you're doing it for the best. The children will be fine but as a parent I did miss them and I did feel guilty.' Carol adds 'Once you've taken the children to school they're in the middle of a large extended family and will have so much fun they probably won't want to come home at the end of term!'
If you will be living abroad, or a long distance away whilst your child is boarding it is critical to ensure that a reliable family member or guardian is available to provide a welcoming home for exeat weekends and at half-term. Schools will rightly insist that parents of all boarders nominate a guardian in case of emergency and for those who do not have family or friends willing to take on the role there are professional agencies who can arrange a guardianship service for you. Guardian families are carefully vetted and selected to provide a safe and caring environment for boarding children. Professional guardians should take an interest in your child's progress at school and attend parent's evenings on your behalf when you are unable to be there. Parenting a boarder who is in a different country or a very long way away brings its own challenges but your school will be able to advise on this and will be happy to share their expertise.
Although it might sound obvious the practical preparations for boarding are crucial. Ensure that all the required items from the school's list have been purchased, and named, in good time. Don't leave buying uniform until the last minute as you don't want your child to be the only one waiting for their blazer to be delivered three weeks after the start of term! Make sure you read the instructions on where to sew in name tapes and hanging loops and check that you have labelled absolutely everything. Spending hour after hour stitching name tapes into rugby socks is not particularly riveting but it will be far more irritating if you have to purchase another pair before half-term when the original unnamed pair has gone walkabout. Encourage your child to take care of his or her self and their possessions whilst they are still at home with you. Learning to tie shoelaces, fold clothes and hang up items neatly are all important life skills, whether boarding or not.
Your child will also thank you for refraining from buying embarrassing items such as jeans with an elasticated waist and making them wear a blazer that is two sizes too big or small is a definite faux-pax. Check out your chosen school's second-hand shop: no-one will be able to tell whether or not a school coat or blazer is brand new and by the second or third week of term everyone will be looking a little less pristine than they did at the beginning in any case. Second-hand shops only sell items that are in excellent condition and they are often far fresher looking than hand-me-downs from older siblings. You'll also save money and frustration when your son or daughter suddenly grows two sizes in the space of a term. Buying second-hand is also very environmentally friendly and really rather cool.
Once your child is happily settled at school it is likely that you may not hear very frequently from your little or not so little treasure. They will, in all likelihood, telephone you only when they wish to moan or complain about something (quite often the food). Remember that once they have put the telephone down they will no doubt have recovered and raced off to their next activity without a second thought, whereas you, the parent, will have a miserable evening and possibly a sleepless night worrying. When this happens Jonathan Milton suggests that you phone the house staff to check that all is well. 'They will be able to put your mind at rest and will keep an eye on your child just in case.' When things are going well a parental enquiry may simply be met with 'it's fine Mum' and an exasperated sigh. Don't push your son or daughter for information; just accept that they are busy getting on with life.
One great advantage of boarding is that whilst day pupils spend valuable time each day travelling to and from school, boarding pupils can take advantage of the hours gained for extra sports, hobbies or activities. As a parent you will not have to try to remember which day is which for swimming, judo, ballet or CCF, nor sit in endless traffic jams during the school run. Prep can also be speedily dispatched under supervision, thus saving Mum or Dad from looking a complete idiot when it is realised that long division was done differently back in the Dark Ages. If your child is a weekly boarder you will be able to enjoy weekends together freed from the arguments over whether that English essay has in fact been finished or what time lights must go out on a school night. During half-terms and holidays you will be able to relax and enjoy time with your confident, independent boarding child. As boarders, children learn to respect others and to look to be responsible for themselves. With luck you will benefit from this when they come home and may even be fortunate enough to find the washing-up done or the rubbish put out if you pin up a rota (remember that it is important to have a dream!).
Finally, don't forget that even in this digital age children of all ages love to receive things through the post. Send a postcard once a week to remind your daughter or son that you are thinking of them and then put your feet up and relax.