The new boarders

Many parents think it's cruel to send children away to school, yet more and more are now taking that step - and finding it hugely beneficial to family life, writes Julia Stuart
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The Independent Online

Like many parents, Jane Denman was horrified at the thought of sending her children to boarding school. The idea of packing off her "babies" to be looked after by strangers was incomprehensible. Now, however, all three of her daughters – aged 16, 14 and eight – are boarders and her six-year-old son is destined to follow. She says it was the best thing she could have done for her children. They've flourished personally and academically, and she enjoys what she describes as "quality time" with them.

"God! It was so difficult, but it's paid dividends," said Mrs Denman, 46, a former professional golfer who runs a day nursery. "I've just had four weeks with them and we had such a wonderful time as a family. You do have such an amazing bond with them. I've got four children, and I think if they were all coming home with homework and things like that, we would have been at loggerheads. That's all taken care of. When they come home I don't have any of that, I just have this amazing quality time."

Mrs Denman is not alone in her enthusiasm. The number of children going to boarding school has risen for the first time in 15 years. While the total number is small – just over 1 per cent to 69,415 – the numbers of girls has risen by 2.5 per cent to 28,973. Head teachers cite the importance parents are now placing on their daughters' education, the fact that both parents are more likely to work, and the added security of children not having to travel to school on their own. Parents also have the opportunity of seeing their children more – many board less than an hour away from home and are able to return at weekends.

Clarissa Farr, chairwoman of the Boarding Schools Association, said: "The idea that you send your children away to board, and that it is somehow an abrogation of parental responsibility, is very much in the past. Boarding schools like to work in close partnership with parents. There is greater flexibility about when children go home, for example. It's a form of education that can complement family life, not be an either/or."

She said the resurgence of interest in boarding started at the beginning of the 1990s, predating Harry Potter mania. "I think more people are recognising that boarding education has a modern relevance. Parents who work long hours recognise the fact that they don't have a great deal of family time, particularly during the week, and boarding can offer an excellent education academically, as well as a huge range of extra-curriculum activities for children. That pastoral care is a particular strength of boarding schools." Last year, there were nine boarding schools in the top 20 performing schools at A-level.

Mrs Denman and her husband Richard, 53, a farmer, decided to give boarding a go when her eldest, Natasha, then just seven, begged to board at Windlesham House School, near Horsham, West Sussex, after visiting it. The school is just a two-minute walk from their home.

"I did wonder whether this was the right thing to do but what really struck me was the happiness of the children," said Mrs Denman. "I thought, it can't be that bad. It took her about a year, but she flourished. They had art, drama, everything that the other schools didn't have.

"Did I miss her? I was totally gutted. If someone said to me when she was five or six, 'Could you send your child to boarding school?', I would have said: 'Over my dead body.' But when your child is coming home and saying 'Please mummy, I really want to go', you're in a bit of a different position.

"When I sent Natasha I had this feeling of guilt because I had sent my daughter away. You feel as though you're going to sever something, like you're not going to have those cuddles. I think mummy suffers more than the children, but you do it for your kids. I feel it's one of the most unselfish things I've done. It's been fantastic." Her youngest daughter, Louisa, aged eight, who attends Windlesham, is at home from Saturday lunchtime until Sunday evening. "She's having a blast. She's busy all the time," says her mother.

Adele Maxwell-Glass, 47, who owns a residential home for the elderly, and whose husband, David, also 47, is a railway track inspector, finds boarding ideal, given the hours she works. Her daughter Stefanie, 13, has been at Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford, Herts, for two years. She went to a state school, as her four older siblings had, but was moved to a private school when her parents became concerned about class sizes. "She wanted to go to boarding school because a lot of children who go to private school go there and my work is seven days a week, near enough 24 hours a day," says Mrs Maxwell-Glass, who has six children aged from 11 to 26, and lives in Frinton-on-Sea, Essex.

"I felt it would be good for her because I don't have as much free time as I did with the others, and they have a lot of after-school activities. I thought she would have more opportunities and a superior education. It would be better for me as a working mum, and we would have quality time when she comes home, on every third weekend in the month. I speak to her on the phone every week. I miss her more than she misses me. But you have to make these sacrifices.

"During the primary years, you're running them backwards and forwards to friends. Her being at boarding school alleviates a lot of pressure because you're trying to do all those things and work and try to be the perfect mother. It has made my life much easier. We tend to get on better and enjoy each other's company much more, probably because we don't see each other that often. When they're home, if you feel tired you tend to be moaning at them that they've made a mess, or should be doing their homework. You don't have that. You make the time together precious. Obviously it doesn't suit every child. There will be the odd few who would never get used to it."

Indeed. One 17-year-old, who didn't want to be named, was bullied for five years at a boarding prep school and twice attempted to harm herself. "I felt that the school didn't care that much, essentially because I was from a diplomatic family so I wasn't the sort of person whose grandparents had come to the school. I tried to tell the school but they weren't very sympathetic. My parents still don't know that I tried to cut my wrists. There is bullying at every school, but at boarding school every problem is magnified by the fact that you can't get out. I forgot how to have normal relationships with people and I had to relearn that."

One 29-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, attended one of Britain's top public boarding schools and remembers "a huge amount of cruelty". "There was a lot of bullying and victimisation. Then there was the more or less enforced homosexuality. It was in one house and a strong tradition. It stopped just short of buggery. The lack of supervision and discipline outside lessons was the problem. The worst thing is the sort of person it turns you into – selfish and arrogant, or a wreck."

John Acklaw, a chartered educational psychologist, said children sent to boarding school needed to be socially confident, good organisers with strong coping skills. "The mistake is sometimes made that a child is sent to boarding school to be able to learn those skills. Without them they tend to become vulnerable in some ways, including to bullying."

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