Education Viewpoint: To board or not to board

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Boarding seems to be slipping out of fashion. Numbers are declining and some schools with long boarding traditions are metamorphosing into day schools. It is very expensive for parents and is often regarded as a shameful abdication of parental responsibility. I was not a boarder and neither were my sons: families should be together on a daily basis, we all felt.

But there is another side to all of this, as I have recently discovered by taking a teaching job in a boarding-school, one of the very few left that has no day students and no weekly boarders. I have identified three clear and very significant advantages to boarding education of which I was not previously aware.

First, there is a level of academic commitment undreamt of by most students and teachers in day schools. Classroom 'exposure' is longer and includes Saturday morning; this is only possible because the pupils are on site and not struggling with the problems of travelling alone or in the dark.

Substantial amounts of independent study ('prep' or homework) are set and time for it is built into every student's daily schedule. There is an ethos that values and rewards hard work and an understanding that the top priority in one's schooling is academic work. The students themselves freely acknowledge this as a plus, many of them believing that they would work less diligently and achieve much less if they were exposed to the distractions available to day-school pupils.

Second, boarding-school pupils have access to a huge range of extracurricular activities. In two-career families it is almost impossible for parents to take their teenagers to a large number of specialist venues on a regular basis. Anyone who has attempted it will be familiar with the problematic logistics of ballet on Monday, chess on Tuesday, orchestra on Wednesday, and so on. In a good boarding-school it is all laid on, either on site or it is someone's designated job to drive a minibus

to the riding stables, the reservoir, the 'away' match or whatever. The students have an outstanding range of opportunities with the minimum stress.

Third, there are discernible social benefits to be gained from living communally with people of your own generation. I am very impressed by the comfortable relationships that exist among pupils and between pupils and staff. People know each other very well, and rather than breeding contempt, it seems to foster genuine mutual respect. I have to date encountered no bitchiness or bullying at any level. Students go out of their way to be polite and affable to, as well as supportive of, each other. Boarding evidently has a positive part to play in self-development. Gone are the stark, bleak domestic arrangements of yore, too. The 'houses' are comfortable and attractive and the generous and tasty food is eaten with enthusiasm.

But what about all the fashionable arguments against boarding? Well, the majority of 'our' students live within a hundred miles of the school and many of them much nearer. Consequently, parents visit frequently - attending plays, matches, concerts, church services or just dropping in. There is an 'exeat' roughly every three weeks when everyone goes home for the weekend and a number of additional weekends when individual students may go home. There is a generous half-term break at the mid-point in each of the three terms plus a total of four months' holiday. Pupils also phone home as often as they wish. It simply is not true to say that they are denied family life, or that they are in any sense out of sight and so out of mind.

Modern boarding is a far cry from what some older people recall from their own adolescence or from the image many of us harbour from reading Nicholas Nickleby, Tom Brown's School Days or the novels of Angela Brazil. For some parents it could be an ideal way of keeping the demands of and obligations to young people in some kind of sensible balance. If my children were of school age today, then knowing what I do now, I would give the boarding option serious consideration.

The author teaches at an independent boarding-school in the Home Counties.