Don't lock your children up in a boarding school

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The Independent Online
In many ways a saintly woman and general force for good, the author JK Rowling seems to be responsible for a sinister new trend.

In many ways a saintly woman and general force for good, the author JK Rowling seems to be responsible for a sinister new trend. Boarding schools are becoming fashionable again. Children read Harry Potter's adventures at Hogwarts at precisely the moment when their parents, if they are well-heeled and that way inclined, are worrying what sort of private school to send them to for their teenage years. Where the child sees adventure with chums in the dorm, the parents see a reprieve from dealing with the terrors of adolescence.

There is "a new mood of confidence" at boarding schools, according to the political wing of the private education movement, Isis. The decline in numbers of children being sent away has been reversed. There are currently 63,336 boarders, representing 14 per cent of the independent sectors. "Boarding is back," says a spokesman for the peculiar-sounding organisation Boarding in the 21st Century. "Parents know that modern boarding offers their children a safe, secure and caring environment."

Not so long ago, there were enough parents who had themselves endured incarceration to realise what an absurdly partial view this is. They would know that boarding schools may be safe and secure, but then so are prisons. And, even if they are caring, they presumably care no more for a child than its own family ­ or, if they do, something is badly wrong.

It might even be true that a child might get better exam results if sent away from home, but that is as it should be. Boredom is part of boarding, along with a lack of privacy and need to conform. With fewer distractions, there is more time for work.

The problem is that what some call distractions, others call life. A child locked away for most of the year, away from the rows, compromises and pressures of everyday family life, is being offered a controlled and psychologically harmful course through those years. It is, of course, one of the great myths of boarding that it teaches people to "stand on their two feet". By its nature, institutionalised life discourages true independence.

There are other myths. Parents of children at prep or primary schools like to argue that it was their little one who made the choice. They did, and for a reason. Private education is crazily, unhealthily competitive. Parents live in mortal fear that their children might be, in the brutal euphemism used on these occasions, "average". It is easier, particularly for boys, to get into a boarding school than a private day school. The choice is informed by fear of failure.

Another myth: boarding schools are different from the way they once were. Where there was bullying, there is care; where there was grinding routine, there is freedom. The same story has been told to previous generations and extensive anecdotal evidence ­ scars of boarding last for life ­ suggests that it is rarely true. The spirit of a school endures in its bricks and mortar.

One can see the temptation, if you are a parent and you have the money. By paying a respectable institution to take the strain of the difficult years of your child, you can resume your own personal and professional life without irritants or interruptions.

But there is a price to pay. While a few children will, for reasons of background or personality, benefit from being at a boarding school, most do not. Sending them away deprives them of the riotous mess of daily family life throughout the year which is as important a part of growing up well as any exam or sports facility.

Those who doubt this might take a trip to a town in a boarding school area ­ Marlborough, say. There, on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, in one of those grimly cosy, beamed tea-rooms, you will see middle-class parents trying to communicate with their children. There is something awkward, unnatural and sad about it all.

terblacker@aol.com

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