April 2014

“One of the big findings of modern psychology is that wellbeing is a key ingredient for successful learning.” Peter Gumbel

MY STORY: 1970s/1980s

I was longing to go to boarding school. I had done my homework; hours invested in the pages of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers had served to fire my imagination and made me dream of lacrosse, midnight feasts and classroom pranks. In 1978, aged 12, my wish came true. I posed proudly on our lawn in my new school uniform (the height of 70s crimplene) whilst my father recorded the departure of his youngest child, hugged and kissed my beloved cat and left for my new life with a skip and a jump and a heart bouncing with anticipation. (I presume I kissed and hugged my parents as well).

LEAVING FOR SCHOOL

And so began my boarding school adventure: four years shared with 499 other teenage girls. I loved it; the rules (and also breaking them), the team sports (lacrosse, of course), the mealtimes (plastic bread, plastic meat – and chips), the fire practices (organized in the middle of the night in our pyjamas), the tennis matches played late on summer evenings, the pottery room in the attic, the assemblies when the whole school gathered together and sang. I soaked it all up. Perhaps I was an unusual creature; amongst my friends it was cool to be in rebellion against ones family and ones school, but I loved both.

The food was pretty revolting and of minimal nutritional value, the headmistress was terrifying, we didn’t have mobile phones or computers and were forced to write a weekly letter to our parents (our only form of communication). We slept in small ‘cubicles’, separated by partitions and curtains, were yanked out of bed to say prayers in the early morning and were treated to a weekly television ration of Dallas and Top of the Pops. We shivered beside the open-air pool awaiting orders from a sadistic swimming teacher, lay around at the week ends eating sweets (courtesy of our weekly 30p pocket money) and squealed when we received a letter from a BOY.

This may paint a very bleak picture of life at a British boarding school, yet, even in the early 80s, these institutions had come along way in improving their Dickensian reputation of cold showers, fagging and flogging. The “Colditz in kilts” which Prince Charles had endured was gradually becoming a thing of the past. These schools, which had once reveled in teaching children (sometimes as young as 6) to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’, through all means of adversity and punishment, began to soften and modernise. As the years have gone by, they have become happy places of learning and friendship, finding an even balance between effort and reward, whilst maintaining tremendous records of achievement in every domain.

MY CHILDREN’S STORY: 2010

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

We had two options: we could either keep our four teenage children at home with us in France and continue our close and comfortable family life, or send them 800kms away to boarding school in the north of England. We chose the English route, thereby taking not only a massive, emotional decision, but also making a significant financial sacrifice.

Pretty much every day in France I am met with incredulous looks of horror and incomprehension. “How could you send your children so far away?” people ask in shocked tones; “that must be so hard.” It is hard; horribly so at times, and there are moments of miserable emptiness (for us, the parents left at home). Yet, as soon as I speak to my children and feel their happiness and enthusiasm, or receive a short email saying no more than “Really busy, lots of love,” I am reassured. Any worries or doubts that may linger are totally banished when we go to the school itself. Welcomed as part of the close community and made to feel very much at home, we are able to see our children joking with their friends, racing around on the sports field, performing on stage, chatting to teachers. Then I know without doubt that this choice – for my children – was the happiest one.

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The trigger for me came five years ago when I spent a week in England looking after my ailing father. I made the last-minute decision to take my ten-year old son out of his French school and enroll him in a local prep school as a day boy. The first morning I dropped off a slightly anxious child, awkward in his unfamiliar tie and grey flannel trousers. Ten hours later I was greeted by a grubby creature, bobbing up and down in excitement. “Mummy, Mummy,” he gabbled as soon as he saw me, “we did experiments in science and I played rugby and we lay on the floor in the library and read, and Rosie said……” My heart leapt and sank in swift succession. How could I deny my children this wonderful opportunity, this freedom and joyful adventure?

It has been tremendously rewarding to see our children thrive in the boarding school environment. Our daughter, who arrived in the Sixth Form, rang us during her first week to say, “thank you, thank you, I am so happy; I am going to send my children here.” One son, who had stalled at school, has had his interest in learning re-kindled through positive encouragement. Another son has grown in confidence, finding his strengths both in and out of the classroom. And then there is the youngest: even more passionate today about science and who is a regular visitor to the school infirmary with rugby injuries. Who knows what the future holds for any of them? Butcher, baker candlestick maker; whatever they go on to do, I am pretty sure that they will be always aided by the solid foundation of their all-rounded school days.

YOUR CHILD’S STORY: 2014 and on

“Teaching is an art form. It is not a delivery system. It’s about getting to know your students and finding good ways to energise them and engage their imagination”. Sir Ken Robinson

There is a multitude of words that trip off my tongue when I am extolling the virtues of the British boarding school system. Encouragement, confidence-building, fair play, team spirit, independence, self-respect, tradition, good manners, creativity, emotional intelligence….. the list is long and positive. This is made possible with the help of enthusiastic teachers who encourage active participation, small class sizes, a streaming system to cater for a range of abilities, the strong tutor structure, the overall house set-up within each school. This is all held together by a vital pastoral element.

Of course, there are many other factors which help to make a successful and happy school and each establishment will have a particular strength or ethos which sets it apart from others. There is a school for everyone: the highly academic, the seriously sporty, the shy child, as well as the outgoing one. Whichever place you decide suits your child, you can be sure they will be closely guided throughout their stay at the school, and the parent given regular updates of his or her progress. Individual learning support is offered to those children with special needs such as dyslexia, and your child’s academic life is not over if they struggle in maths. The school will soon uncover a pupil’s potential, stimulate their curiosity and fire up in them a desire to learn.

RAINBOW

It is true that the facilities are often of exceptional standard: golf courses, equestrian centres and Olympic-sized pools are not uncommon. It is also true that the pupils are extremely privileged; neither can the significant school fees be ignored. But there are facts to be taken into account which show that the independent sector makes increasing efforts to share its privileged status. 9 out of 10 fee-paying schools have an agreement with local state schools or community groups. Most independent schools have close ties to chosen charities and encourage their pupils to become involved in fund raising and help those left fortunate, in Britain and around the world. In 2010 £300 million was put towards bursaries to help 40,000 children attend independent schools.

The recent film, Guillaume et les garcons à table may have been fairly eccentric and its portrayal of the idyllic British boarding school somewhat far-fetched, but it was joyous to see Guillaume thrive and relish in the new life thrown open to him. I tell my own children that they have been given a wonderful opportunity and that they should make the most of every minute. When I visit these impressive establishments today, I often wish I could go back to school again myself.

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