Founding partner of Debrett’s
Education Sioban O’Connor
unpacks the case for boarding

My role is to help families find the best schools for their child and twice now in as many days, I have had two conversations with two separate clients, who were looking for some advice about schools for their children, that started with the phrase "my parents didn’t love me; they sent me away to boarding school!", to which  I replied, "That’s ok, my parents didn’t love me either , they sent me away too!"

They were joking of course, and so was I. Although the coincidence of both these men saying the same thing in quick succession resonated with me afterwards, it also reminded me of my German teacher at school, who would often say insensitively and more than a little cruelly to the ‘day’ students in the class about ‘us boarders’, that our parents didn’t care about  us, which was why we were boarders. The outrage I felt then as a teenager, at the words of a thoughtless adult, stays with me not simply because it couldn’t have been further from the truth, but as a consultant now advising parents about school options for their children, the look on their faces when – having heard their circumstances and the juggling act they are trying to perform in terms of childcare etc. – I ask if they would ever consider boarding school,  would make you think that I had suggested that they give their child up for adoption!

The idea of boarding is divisive one.  Some of the families that I come across, once they have recovered from the shock of my question, state simply that boarding for their family is simply not an option. Yet there are others for whom, although not something they had ever seriously considered for their children, boarding proves to be the best possible solution not only for the child themselves but also for them as a family.

Juggling work and family commitments is never easy, particularly when your job demands that you travel extensively or just simply work very long hours and get home just in time to have that battle over homework not done or to say ‘good night’. For those families who find themselves in that situation, boarding, especially weekly or flexi, offers some stability, security and continuity, which is vital in a young person’s life.

Often parents feel guilty about what is perceived to be ‘sending their children away’, and yet curiously they don’t feel the same about employing a nanny or sending their children to summer camps for most of the summer.

I was what is affectionately known as a ‘military brat’ and like so many of my contemporaries, my parents were on the move every two years. For my parents, that would have meant constantly uprooting their three girls, and for us, it would have meant starting and trying to settle into new schools, making new friends and so on, every two years, and potentially at important times in our education – in the middle of exam years and so on.  That would have meant at least six different schools in my educational career instead of just one boarding school.

It is a huge relief for families to know that their children are safe and their schooling is not being disrupted

Whilst there are not so many UK military overseas postings today, which has tangibly played a part in the reason why there are nowhere near as many boarding schools, there are still many for whom working abroad or simply working long hours is a necessity, and it is a huge relief for families to know that their children are safe and their schooling is not being disrupted.  Many families are grateful for the opportunity for their children to be boarding, if not for the full term, at least during the week and maybe as little as one or two nights.

With all schools under pressure to provide a wide range of extra and co-curricular activities, as well as a first-rate education, there are simply not enough hours in a normal school day to offer all these things and still maintain the focus on the academic curriculum. Independent schools, particularly boarding schools come into their own in this regard, as having the children there 24/7 means that they can fill the hours between breakfast and bed, with a raft of wonderful clubs and activities, not to mention supervised prep or study sessions, all of which contribute to the well-rounded education that sets independent schools apart.

I do not want to pretend that boarding is for everyone or that it is right for all families; it has its issues but doesn’t being at school generally?  Most children will fall in and out of love with their school at some stage, just as they fall in and out of love with their friends – it is tough growing up but thankfully we manage it. Much is made of the negative impact of boarding on a child, but sadly few write about the positive and thankfully, for many of us it was a hugely positive experience.

It is so important when considering a school, boarding or day, that you really consider the personality of your child. All too often, the child is not included in the decision-making process, or having a say in which school they are applying to, and the child may even feel ‘sent away’ when boarding, if that is how the parent presents it.

Debrett’s Education prides itself on providing expert and more importantly impartial advice about independent education. We support and guide families to find the best solutions for their children.

If you would like more information and/or an informal chat
about boarding schools or just about independent education
as a possibility, then give one of our consultants a call on
+44 (0) 203 848 9201, or fill out the enquiry form on our
website education.debretts.com