Leaving Home at 8
The recent Channel 4 'Cutting Edge' documentary, 'Leaving Home at 8' has prompted significant debate and comment on whether it is too young an age for children to board. Attain gauged the reaction at three schools.
The four girls from Highfield School who featured in the Channel 4 documentary, 'Leaving Home at 8'
It has been interesting to see the level of debate generated by the Channel 4 documentary, Leaving Home at 8. The filming took place at an IAPS boarding preparatory school, Highfield, in Hampshire. It followed the progress of four girls - all aged eight - as they embarked on boarding at the school. Highfield is a boarding and day school of 225 boys and girls with a very strong boarding community of almost 100 children, of which there are a small number of 8 and 9 year olds, with most pupils choosing to become boarders when they are 11 or 12. The film makers, with the co-operation and consent of the school and the parents of the children involved, were given almost unlimited access to the school, its staff and pupils during the 14 weeks of the Christmas Term. Phillip Evitt, Highfield's Headmaster, said: 'It is a difficult decision to allow television cameras into school, and we only did so with the full backing and consent of the parents. We decided to give the crew unprecedented access around the school and the programme is an honest, powerful and emotional documentary which pulls at our heart strings as it tackles the issues of separation faced by young children and their parents. The film crew left us on the last day of the Christmas term, and I'm happy to report that all four girls are fully settled and extremely happy here. I applaud them all for the way they have taken to boarding life and for the great contribution they are already making to the whole school community.'
Much emphasis was made of the fact, and quoted on the Channel 4 website, that 'each of their parents has decided that their child will be better off boarding in a private school'. Although it was mentioned that the parents were all Forces families, the implications of this, and the effect it has on families, received no attention. Channel 4 also ran a poll on their website to gauge whether readers would send their children to boarding school; the results (2,691 votes at time of writing) were unsurprising (22% Yes, 73% No, 5% Unsure). Why this reaction? A lack of understanding in part, coupled with a lack of awareness of the particular parents' situation. Inevitably the focus was on 'good television' and the majority of the Channel 4 website's viewer comments rather reinforce the stereotype which was not dispelled.
Attain has published below the reaction from three people in the sector: the Head of Boarding at a preparatory school in Derbyshire; the Headmaster of a state boarding school; and the Housemistress of a boarding preparatory school in East Sussex.
Richard Mace, S. Anselm's Prep
As Head of Boarding at S. Anselm's, a preparatory boarding school in Derbyshire, I was appalled at this one-sided depiction of boarding life for young boys and girls at schools such as ours. Since arriving at S. Anselm's I have been astounded by the warmth and excitement generated within this day and full boarding preparatory school. The energy, happiness and enthusiasm are evident as soon as you walk through the front door. The children here are a delight and full of vigour and joy. These children are not, 'sent away to boarding school'. Their parents are deeply caring and are heavily involved in their children's lives and the life of the school.
I'm afraid to say that many areas of our country contain examples of wealthy but time poor, stressed out parents failing to attend to their children's needs. The papers are filled with references to soaring urban knife crime, youth alcoholism and drug-taking within our 'broken society'. With this in mind, I was disappointed that Channel 4 chose to ignore the wonderful environment, stability and warmth that are being offered at schools such as Highfield. The chance to have some independence and time to play and roam safely are critical at this young age and that is what preparatory boarding schools can offer.
Rather than being restrictive, boarding prep schools offer an antidote to so many of the social ills our children face in modern times. S. Anselm's offers an opportunity for young people to grow up in the heart of a national park with space to breath and to play. The Peak District is their playground and every weekend the children enjoy outdoor activities such as canoeing, abseiling, orienteering or just going for long walks. They also have time to build models, play board games and learn to cook. Unfairly and rather oddly, none of these kinds of opportunities were highlighted in the recent documentary.
Well that may be, some would say, but where is the closeness and love of the parent? I concede that it is a difficult decision for parents to make, but very often I have found that the decision to board is made by the children rather than their parents and I often have parents telling me they want to wait a little longer before committing to boarding but their son or daughter is pleading to be allowed in! By choosing a boarding education, parents are giving their children a chance to have a childhood that is full of adventure and excitement. Innocent fun, the great outdoors and the chance to forge wonderful friendships are just a few of the opportunities that await them. Vitally, there is an immense amount of quality contact time with parents which many day pupils lack. I know of day pupils who return to empty houses and wait on their own for their parents to return late from work. In the mornings, they get up and are hurried into cars and bundled off to school in a chaotic and matter of fact manner by parents who lack the time due to the modern stresses of our working lives.
Rural full boarding preparatory schools are increasingly rare. Sending children away to board is not for every parent and, of course, it does come at a price that is by no means affordable to the majority. With the increase in the myriad of modern ills that threaten our children it is my firm belief that boarding prep schools may well offer many parents the vital antidote they are looking for. To demonise them is to ignore the fact that far from being archaic institutions on the verge of extinction, they actually offer a warm family-friendly solution to the modern childhood ills that pepper the pages of our newspapers.
Richard Mace is Head of Boarding at S. Anselm's Preparatory School, Derbyshire.
Andrew Jarman, LRGS
Leaving home is arguably the most significant rite of passage for any individual. Through childhood, adolescence and into young adulthood, independence and personal identity steadily emerge and evolve. However, at whatever age, nothing can quite prepare you for that first spell away from the familiar comforts of home. An uncle of mine once confessed that his greatest fear during his National Service was the first night away. A tutorial colleague at university didn't last the first term, so much did he miss his home town. It can even affect world class sportsmen. The cricketer Marcus Trescothick revealed in his searingly honest autobiography that it was homesickness that brought an end to his international career.
It therefore comes as no surprise to any of us in boarding schools that pupils will need a period of adjustment when they join our schools. We also recognise that the new family arrangements can be difficult for parents too. There is a gap at the meal table, and an unfamiliar lack of loud music in a bedroom, which takes some getting used to! Prospective parents often ask me how long it will take their son to settle to boarding at my school. I tend to hedge my bets with a nicely symmetrical reply, based on experience, that it takes between two minutes and two terms! And rarely can one predict how any individual might react. Sometimes, the mousey scared-looking boy settles overnight, whilst the seemingly ebullient and self-confident struggle for longer to adjust. The issues raised in the Channel 4 documentary Leaving Home at 8 therefore come as no surprise, and the warm support and enlightened care demonstrated at the school in question, Highfield, is echoed all around the country. 'There is no magic cure [for homesickness]', said the Housemistress Mrs Gray, but there are plenty of sensible mechanisms for minimising the impact.
Alas, the documentary had a clear agenda. By focussing on primary age, the impact was not unsurprisingly greater and the programme focussed on the one girl and her mother who were having the most difficulty, rather than those who took only two minutes. Clearly there was no real story there. Newspaper reviews of the programme also played on the uninformed stereotypical: the girls were being 'packed off' to school, being 'institutionalised', remarking that 'depositing one's child... with a group of strangers is just deeply, deeply unnatural'.
For those of us in the know, the truth is dramatically different. The staff in boarding schools are the most caring and compassionate of professionals, and facilities frequently outshine those at universities, as does the catering. Modern boarding is a working partnership with parents, increasingly flexible and with regular contact encouraged. Weekly boarding at my school, for example, provides four nights at school and three at home each week. Many of these boys decide to stay at school over certain weekends when they see that there is more enjoyment to be had from the school's weekend activities than their parents can provide!
For those of us in the know, it also comes as no surprise that by the end of the first term, the pupils being filmed were happy, busy and settled, with firm friendships made for life. Perhaps the Channel 4 team will return next year to reveal how much they are now enjoying boarding school life; but probably not, as there's not much of a story there either. It happens all the time.
Andrew Jarman is Headmaster of Lancaster Royal Grammar School, a selective state school for boys (day and boarding), aged 11-18.
Helen Caithness, Vinehall School
The documentary has provoked a number of responses here at Vinehall from our parents and the children - a few of them having started their boarding education at a similar age.
One parent wrote to us saying: 'Having just got home from the parent-teacher meeting, I feel as parents we have only done the best thing for him. Every teacher I saw was positive, encouraging and most importantly, kind. There is no school near us that would have been able to have given the time and patience to our son like you all have and for that I will be eternally grateful. He has loved his time at Vinehall and I can't wait for his brother to get there.'
One of our boarders said: 'It makes me really cross when programmes like this are shown as it always talks so much about being unhappy! We're not! Boarding is really fun. Sure, some people get homesick sometimes, especially in the first term, but all the day children get really fed up and bored at home and no one is filming them arguing with their mums, or moaning to their friends on Facebook! Boarding is never boring because there is always something to do. I have such good friends here, and I'm really looking forward to seeing my family next week because we'll have time together and loads to talk about. Some of the day kids will just be left to watch TV or something.' Another felt that boarding is less comfortable when pupils feel unwell or have argued with a friend but then those occasions are rare and the vast majority of the time they would much prefer to be boarding. 'We get loads more work done, but still have time to hang out with our friends, and chat to our parents on the phone.'
When asked about homesickness, two of our girls who themselves experienced Leaving Home at 8 explained that it is part of growing up. They pointed out that 18 year-olds who had never been away from home before experienced it too, and had a range of strategies for dealing with it themselves - writing a diary or a letter, listening to music, having some chocolate or other edible treat, having a chat with a friend, gap student or other member of staff, catching up on sleep, or just getting busy. They all advised no contact with home for the first week ('or longer') because it just makes homesickness worse. 'The first home weekend is horrible, because you don't want to come back to school again, but now we appreciate the time we have at home and I hardly ever argue with my brother anymore.'
So, is 'Leaving home at 8' too young? Not according to some of our girls ('you don't want to start a new school much later than that because everyone has already made their friends by Year 4 or 5') although most thought that age 9 or 10 would be better. 'It depends on the person, and it depends on the circumstances. I think as long as you've discussed the reasons and you know why you are going to be a boarder, you'll be OK. It's the Mums that find it hardest.'