Monday, June 13, 2011

Should young children go to boarding school?

My boy is seven years old. He'll be eight in October, but either way he's still just a young lad. His mum and I have been debating whether we should send him to boarding school.

Most parents would balk at sending their child to live with strangers. I would have too, until I started to look at the benefits for the kids. Now, I'm coming round to the idea.

We've now been living as expats for five years. My boy was born in England and spent most of his first three years living in leafy Surrey, with a regular routine of tramps in the woods, village playgroups, and cuddles from the Waitrose old ladies. I'd given up work to become a thoroughly modern home dad and, apart from not seeing much of his mum during the week, I thought we led a pretty idyllic life.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a small town in North-West England, people didn't move round much. You studied at the local schools; you worked in a local office or factory; you drank in a local pub; you bought a house down the road from your parents. This was accepted behaviour, and those who moved away, for education or work, were viewed with a slight suspicion when they returned. If you're not familiar with the culture, then Richard Hoggart described it superbly in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life. All terribly interesting social history, but I thought it was necessary too, because there is a purpose to this blog post. The purpose is to justify to my Northern family why I believe boarding school might be a rational choice, and that family still retains many of those social norms of my youth.

Anyway, back to Surrey. In the South-East of England, careers are fast-moving and jobs come and go. My wife was made redundant, hired by a competitor, then offered a role with her old firm running an office in Doha, Qatar. The decision to move was easy: it was a career jump and a great adventure. We stayed there for four years, which is just about enough time for anyone to become jaded with the Arabian Peninsula.

Next was Singapore. We thought we'd spend three or four years in the city, before settling down somewhere for the boy's secondary schooling. Unfortunately, there was a bump in the road, which came in the form of job unpredictability. It's the nature of worldwide business that firms restructure whenever a new leadership team is appointed, and predicting when this will happen is impossible. We now realise that making plans for where we'll be living is futile. If we thought that Singapore, Delhi or Brussels were the perfect place to raise a couple of kids, we'd be disappointed: the world of work just isn't built that way. We may spend a year here, a couple of years there.

A year ago, our boy said goodbye to his friends in Doha, and this week he will bid farewell to his Singaporean pals before the summer holidays. It's comforting to believe that children cope well with change, but the fact is that it takes time for children to make friends, and swapping schools at irregular intervals isn't pleasant for them or good for their education. This is why we began to look at boarding preparatory schools.

Reason 1. Stability. Boarding schools offer the stability that is often lacking for children whose parents move a lot. Many boys thrive with consistent routines, set meal times and clearly defined rules and schedules.

There is another way to gain stability, and that would be for us to move back to the UK and reduce our standard of living. This sounds plausible, until you start to weigh up the costs and benefits. The UK economy is flat, and many economists believe there will be a "lost decade" of stagflation and unemployment. State-sector education in England is poor, and is getting worse, and this has lead to the lowest social mobility since the second world war.

In 2006/7 Cambridge took 55% of its home students from state schools and 45% from the private sector. Only around 6.5% of schoolchildren in the UK are educated privately. To be clear: you are seven times more likely to enter Cambridge if your parents paid for your education. If you want your kids to succeed in Britain, you'd better be rich, and the well-paid jobs are disappearing.

Reason 2. Maximising Opportunity. All universities are not equal. Some provide wider opportunities to their graduates than others. English boarding preparatory schools are at the start of a conveyor belt carrying pupils toward the top independent schools and onward to Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College. It's not fair, but blame the politicians for the system. One of a parent's duties is to maximise their child's chances in life, by whatever method, and boarding schools fit the bill.

Of course, not all boarding schools are equal either, but it's easy enough to check the destinations of their pupils and their results in the Common Entrance Exam. The good schools flaunt this information on their websites, along with any scholarships they've won. The school we've been considering for our boy sent kids last year to Eton, Harrow, Stowe, Winchester, Sherborne, Shrewsbury and Monkton Combe. Out of those, I'd have my own preferences, but they're all great senior schools, which is reassuring.

There are people I know and love for whom the names Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Harrow would leave a sour taste in the mouth. I'm afraid that's an inverse snobbery I can't begin to understand. A core purpose of education is to free the person who is educated, and those who believe you shouldn't mix with a different social class have built a prison for their children.

Reason 3. Facilities. When I was my son's age, my school had a classroom, a playground, an assembly hall (which doubled as a dining room), and that was it. If we wanted some excitement, we might sneak into the boiler room during breaktime. Recreation was running round in circles. Sport was some balls, beanbags, hoops and cones. Music was the recorder.

Listen, I know that UK primary schools have improved over the past 30 years, and my boy's international school in Singapore has an impressive gymnasium and swimming pool. However, the facilities and range of activities for the kids at boarding school are simply outstanding. At our preferred prep, there are three major sports: soccer, rugby and cricket. Fair enough, but the boys can also choose any activities out of tennis, swimming, squash, Eton fives, golf (on the school's 7-hole course), table tennis, athletics, cross country, basketball, indoor hockey, fencing, judo, air rifle shooting, horse riding, polo, water polo, chess, a model railway, cooking, model making, snooker, board games, clay pigeon shooting and bushcraft survival.

I could also list the music, drama and art facilities, but will instead just say that you can't fault them. The academic staff all have degrees from good universities, and there are fewer than 15 boys in each class. Oh, and the school has a house in Normandy where the boys go to practise their French. Really, it's quite unbelievable.

Reason 4. It DOESN'T damage the kids. If you listen to young boarding-school pupils, they don't come across as damaged misfits, but as confident, well-mannered, and independent. When they talk about their lives, they admit home-sickness and crying for their mummies, but they also say that it is a phase that lasts for a few days at the start of term, and then it is mostly forgotten about. Honestly, if you want to see a well-adjusted eight-year-old who is in touch with his emotions, go and watch some interviews with boarding-school pupils talking about separation from their parents. Of course, these boys could have been coached to give the right replies, or might be protecting their parents from uncomfortable truths, but isn't it more likely that they have adapted to their lives without serious trauma?

All boarding schools are inspected by Ofsted, the UK's national schools inspectorate, and also the ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate). Again, any decent school will be proud of these inspection reports. Here's a representative snippet from Ofsted about the school we prefer: "Boarders benefit from excellent levels of individual support resulting in exceptional outcomes. This factor, coupled with the strong nurturing relationships that exist between staff and boarders, fosters a real sense of family living."

If I were to engage in cod psychology, many of the parental fears about boarding schools could be explained by a projection of their separation anxieties onto their children. They believe, with no evidence, that their children will be psychologically scarred by the absence of their mother.

Before we started looking into boarding schools, I believed that children spent 10 weeks at the schools without a break. In fact, the schools close for a week at half term. In the middle of each half term, the kids are sent home for a weekend. Living away from your mum and dad for two or three weeks at a time is going to be unusual for a young boy. However, it isn't the 10-week detatchment of popular imagination.

I'm not going to change any minds with a blog post about child-rearing. All I hope to do is justify my belief that boarding school is a rational choice. We haven't yet made a decision about where our boy will be schooled but, for an expat family who can't say where they'll be living next year, the stability of an excellent English boarding school has many advantages.