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Boarding: far and away the best route to independence?

Sending children to boarding school is an emotive choice. Elaine Williams asks three families about the benefits it offers
As the top public school head teachers meet in conference in Dublin this week, the decline in the numbers of children sent to board continues to exercise their minds.

Parents who send their children to boarding school these days seldom escape disapproval from society at large. A pinched economic climate cannot solely be blamed for the fall-off in boarding numbers (96,909 in 1994, compared with 117,911 in 1990). Generally, people have believed it to be more beneficial for children to be based in the privacy and security of their own home.

Yet although the decline continues, the rate is slowing. Thousands of parents still do opt for boarding, while four out of 10 are first-time buyers (ie, they have not been boarders themselves). According to a survey of 5,000 boarding families, The Best of Both Worlds, published this week by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS), it is not simply because they want to off-load responsibility. They suffer the pain of separation because they believe their children will gain in maturity and independence and have a better all-round education.

Michael and Alice O'Neill have sent their son, Oswald, eight, as a boarder to Aysgarth prep school in North Yorkshire. They have three daughters, Frideswide, Matilda and Eleanor, at state primary school and will consider private provision for them when they reach 11.

The O'Neills both went to boarding school and apart from the "inevitable short-term homesickness" were happy there. That being the case it was predestined that their son should also go. Michael O'Neill stated that even if there had been a good day school on the doorstep, "Oz" would still have been sent to board: "We enjoyed ourselves and we don't want him to miss out on the fun. If you go to prep school you get much more involved in the life of the community, some members of whom you may not like but have to learn to live with.

"We are a close family and we do miss him. People are reluctant to send their children boarding because they feel they are turning their back on their responsibility. But whenever I have that thought I see it as a selfish desire not to give him up."

Alice O'Neill had also boarded from the age of eight. She said: "You are entirely on your own socially, you have to make your own life and that gives you independence and confidence. Aysgarth looks lived in by small boys, there's a lot of buzz and they don't waste money selling the school by covering perfectly nice wooden floors with carpets."

Diana and Tom Bishop have sent their children, Kate, Eva and Nicholas, as weekly boarders to Bedales in Hampshire, despite living locally. Thea, 10, will board when she is 13. Kate, the eldest child, went to a "conventional" boarding school at 12, but found the system too rigid. Her parents then sent her to board weekly at Bedales, a more radical school which emphasises creative and community life. Her siblings followed suit.

Diana Bishop says a more flexible system means she "has not missed out on her children", and she believes coeducational boarding has particularly helped both sides to cope with adolescence. She said: "The children have a busy week: they are thoroughly occupied, but they can touch base at the weekend. In many ways it's a buck-pass putting them into boarding school, but I have found it easier to cope with teenage years. The responsibility for giving moral direction becomes a shared one."

Relationships between children and parents can be claustrophobic. "Eva is 16, a difficult age, and if she has a tough weekend with us she can go back to school and off-load to friends and staff. When she has had a hard week at school she can come home and rant and rave to us. She is saved from isolation in both cases."

Kate, 18, left Bedales in the summer with three A grades at A-level and is taking a gap year. During her time there she became very involved in a jazz group. She felt that boarding school had taught her to "confront differences in people, rather than running away from them". She also felt it had made the relationship with her parents much easier. "When things go wrong you tend to be more objective towards the people who give out the punishments, and that helps."

Sarah and Lindsay McLane's four children have all boarded: Ann at the Mount School in York and Richard, Duncan and Robert at Ampleforth College, close to their home. Lindsay McLane had himself boarded and found it a "traumatic" experience, having been separated from a doting mother at the age of eight to attend a cold and punishing prep school in Derbyshire. "I would call it legalised child abuse," he said. He vowed his own children would never board.

However, Ann was eventually sent to the Mount, a "caring and supportive Quaker boarding school", as "the local day alternatives were not suitable". The boys were sent as day pupils to Ampleforth, but badgered their parents constantly to let them board. "We were forced into it," said Lindsay. "They wanted to be in with everything. But in retrospect I do think it has produced excellence in all of them."

Sarah McLane had been much more in favour of boarding, though she had been a day girl herself. Robert, 13, her youngest child, started as a boarder this year. She said: "They have learnt to stake their place in life from an early age. I wish I had experienced it."

Duncan, 18, left in the summer and will go on to Camberwell School of Art. A quiet yet imaginative boy, he had nevertheless been desperate to board. He said: "You don't miss out and you form really strong friendships that way. I lived with 10 people of my age in my house and I had to learn to get on with them. It changed me. You learn to take everything with a pinch of salt."