Back to School: An adventurous journey from home to dormitory - Boarding schools today make great efforts to welcome new pupils and banish homesickness, writes Robert Eddison

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The Independent Online
SCHOOLDAY memories, particularly if unhappy, may be popular with newspapers but they greatly irritate British boarding schools as they face the twin pressures of the recession and a perceived shift in public attitudes. When the great and the good reflect on their unhappy school experiences they do not seem to allow that things may have changed; often because today's head teachers remember their own first days away from home.

Tom Penrice, headmaster of Harecroft Hall preparatory school in Gosforth, Cumbria, is no exception. 'I vividly remember my arrival as a new boy at my prep school. It was January, the day after King George V died, and there was slushy snow on the ground,' he says. Boys travelled on the train to Seaforth with the headmaster and arrived at school after dark. 'There was virtually no street lighting, I had never visited the school previously, I did not really know anybody for conversation on the train had been limited to 'What's your name?' and 'Where do you live?'

'When I had given my Christian name, I was very abruptly told that Tom was not my name anymore. It had suddenly been changed between Workington and Whitehaven to Penrice.

'I was just nine, I missed my mum, I had simply no idea where I was going and the king was dead. It is strange now how important the king's death was, but it certainly added to my misery.'

Mr Penrice says that if anybody had told him then that he was going to have four happy years at the school he would almost have dried his eyes and laughed outright. 'It is precisely because I remember that January day in the 1930s so very vividly that I am determined that no new boy or girl arriving at Harecroft nowadays should be subjected to such a dramatic change of circumstances, such careless lack of feeling or understanding.'

Every school has its own way of smoothing the path from home to dormitory. Julian James and his wife Hilary of St Aubyn's School, Rottingdean, Sussex, have a well- polished routine. New boys and their parents are invited to the sports day the term before they start. Boys at the school and the headmaster write to prospective newcomers saying they look forward to welcoming them.

The St Aubyns' style really gets into its stride on the first day of term, when all the boys meet at Victoria Station, say goodbye to their parents and travel to the school with the headmaster. 'This makes it less painful for the boys since they arrive in the school as an excited group setting out on an adventure rather than filtering in as as nervous isolated units,' says Mr James.

Once at the school, the new boys are straight into the heated open-air swimming pool before supper with their older 'minders'. Later, matron reads from Roald Dahl's Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as the new boys are introduced to Perkins, the school's mascot, a golden retriever. Mr and Mrs James then telephone the parents of all new boys. 'A new boy's parents can need as much support as the boy himself,' says Mr James.

Top priority in the morning is to photograph of all new boys and any brothers they have at the school. 'I got a lovely photo of Nicholas and Edward and a first proper letter from Nicholas,' says one mother, Cathy Davey.

Hours later, new boys are playing football. Fanny Dalziel, a parent, says: 'We were informed that football boots would be needed 'immediately'. They seem to have it right.'

Football and cricket help to ensure regular contact between parents and boys. Tim Prideaux, an old boy and now a school governor whose father, three uncles, three brothers and two sons went to St Aubyns, says: 'Parents often watch their son play in weekend matches. It also helps to alleviate homesickness. In my schooldays I got terribly homesick and used to cry a lot, but my son hardly knows the meaning of the word.'

Mr James' vigilance does not stop in the first week. 'There can always be later crisis points, particularly at the beginning of a new term or at half-term. We are very alert to this possibility so we make special plans. Perkins invites them all to an end of half-term party. They are so busy bringing him balloons to pop and dog biscuits to eat that they seem to forget about being homesick.'

Mr Prideaux appreciates the efforts of the staff but adds: 'The reason so few of the boys have emotional problems is that they actually care about each other.'

Mr Penrice and Mr James both admit there may have been mistakes in the past in the way children were introduced to boarding. They and countless others are determined that those are mistakes that will not be repeated in their schools.

As Mr Penrice says: 'Children arriving at school for the first time should regard it all as an exciting adventure, not a prison sentence or an abandonment of them by their parents. Their fellow pupils should welcome them; the staff should be their friends as well as their mentors and the domestic side of life should be as much like home as is compatible with school.'

(Photograph omitted)