Boarding; A Rare kind of Privilege
1st September 2017

Boarding often suffers a bad reputation these days. You'd think the huge Harry Potter saga would have mitigated it, with all those tales of warm friendships, flowering maturity, responsibility and exciting learning, not to mention high-jinks and Quidditch match and sneaking out for butterbeer. Maybe it has softened the idea, for a few. But a lot of writing and middle class conversation gives the impression that it is a crime against family life. People carry on as if modern boarding was Dotheboys Hall or a particularly grim first act of Annie, with sobbing mites cringing from a drunken and abusive Miss Hannigan. Or if they're not alleging emotional abuse, they're painting boarding schools often as a luxurious nursery for emotionally stunted toffs, conditioned by the outdated needs of Empire to "send their children away" instead of loving them so that man that can passion misery to man, as Larkin said, deepening like a coastal shelf.

You know that isn't true because you're reading this. You know there are stimulating, pastoral, open-hearted, useful and decent schools, and children who thrive at them. You know that even in the bad old days of grim iron beds and corporal punishment, some of them made lifelong friends and came through it laughing at the worst bits. But you also know- and we all have to admit- that the "survivors" stories are sometimes true. There have been some awful schools, because there are some awful people. I should know: I spent three fearful terms in a South African convent where nuns lashed out with rulers and threatened us with hell, and you washed inn icy water at dawn before a breakfast of incredibly sloppy mealie-porridge. I became expert at faking illness just to get a night on a less lumpy mattress.

Moreover, we should remember that in the 50s and 60s- perhaps a bit later in some places- children at home too were far more likely than now to be ignored, scoulded, misunderstood, hit, seen-and-not heeded. Schools- which today accept mobile phones and parental visits and numerous exeats and flexi-boarding- were inevitably affected by this bygone child rearing culture. So ace it~: the voices of a generation of survivors of bad boarding cannot be dismissed. Nor can the experiences of more recent boarders who were unhappy , because of their own nature and family circumstances or simply a school quite wrong for them.

That sounds a bit downbeat. But if we are to talk about the benefits of the boarding school experience, it is crazy not to accept that it has sometimes gone wrong, even today, or been inappropriate for particular stages. Good schools accept this, and don't bang the drum with exaggerated optimism, promising universal happiness for all temperaments.  When- having been let down badly by pastorally hopeless day school-  we took our shy eldest at twelve to Royal Hospital School for interview, the then headmaster and senior master interviewed, the then headmaster and senior master interviewed him thoughtfully, kindly, and perceptively. They told him plainly about the idiosyncracies of the place and its atmosphere. He met other pupils, and decided it might suit him. After a couple of uncertain months- at one point we had a frank three-way conversation with him and his kind housemaster, drilling down into all the things that bothered him- he settled, and became notably pastorally kind and responsible himself towards younger children. Later his sister joined him.

But at no point did any of us- staff or parents- fool ourselves that there was no risk of failing. Some kids don't take to boarding. Some families don't suit it. Some schools don't fit certain individuals (one teenage friend of mine was utterly miserable, misbehaved and got expelled from another school but had a great time at my Kentish convent). As to ages, there are some eight-year-olds excited and happy and confident as boarders (often weekly or flexi) but other kids who at thirteen or fourteen are really not up for it. Just because it's Dad's old school, or fashionable, or suited your friend's child, or would be really convenient for high-powered dual careers, that doesn't mean that it's going to work.

But it does work, very often indeed. If you have hurled the magazine across the room in disgust at my cautious negativity, be assured that I am only doing it because, in approaching any kind of educational or life decision, everyone's head should be clear. A good choice is a thoughtful choice. And advocates for good boarding can only speak out convincingly if they accept the caveats. Only then can we say that it gives developing young people a rare kind of freedom: a maximum chance for intellectual, sporting, artistic and dramatic development without endless car journeys or smoggy struggles through the London Underground. Only then can we talk about the opportunity for self-development which comes with real community living: the give and take and rueful acceptance of diverse (often awkward) companions who are not of your blood or neighbourhood or taste...

Only then can we point out how tediously limited life can be for young day pupils growing up in busy, work obsessed homes, with tired parents leaving too much to an au pair or nanny. Or how liberating it can be to exist, and negotiate relationships and triumph inside a world which is not controlled by your close family and their views and circumstances. We can point to the way a good boarding school, with its bustling daily human reality, can be an antidote to the danger of leading a weird, lonely social life through screens and social media. We can point to the way relations of adolescents and parents can be cheerfully improved when each gets a few weeks' break from the other. And, of course, when the teenager him or herself has experienced the onerous irritations of responsibility for younger ones. We can point out that the secondary boarder who moves on to University will find it less intimidating to be in a hall full of strangers far from home, and may have a firmer grip on how to feed and care for themselves without mum. 

We can say that when boarding is good- and more often than not it is- it offers a pretty good first step out into the wider world. And, by listening to past and present voices we can help schools to make it that good.

Libby Purves OBE,                                                                                                                                                                                   Journalist, Author and former Boarding School Parent

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