Jan Midwinter, Housemistress Orchard House for girl boarders aged 8-13 at Pocklington School tackles some common misconceptions about boarding.
There have been too many occasions during a school tour of my boarding house when my spirits have fallen. It’s the ‘elephant in the room’ scenario: mothers and fathers tiptoe around the premise that boarding is an abdication of parental responsibility and tantamount to child abuse…sometimes they openly declare that they will never need it and don’t understand parents who do.
No. Their assumptions are wrong and I’m more than happy to tackle those misconceptions with them.
The parents of the junior girls that I look after in Orchard House are loving, realistic and wholly responsible adults, who have made informed decisions about how best to enable their children to thrive (both academically and holistically).It is always a leap of faith, and never an easy decision, for parents to ask another adult to look after their children but by and large, boarding works and it works very well.
It works well because we have a vocational approach to the care of the children we live with. However, they are not our children (with all the emotional entanglement and fear that that can engender) but a precious gift on loan to us, which must be returned to their parents in perfect condition or even improved in some way by our joint efforts.
The mums and dads of our weekly and full-time boarders include: the archetypal Armed Forces family who move too often to provide what any sane person would call a ‘stable education’; a single parent with little extended family support; the parents of a child without siblings or two parents in business who work every hour that God sends during the week to have real quality time at the weekend. Sometimes none of these scenarios apply: it’s just that in a structured boarding week we provide fun, companionship and opportunities that the average rural day child can only dream of on the long bus ride home.
We work as a team with all our parents, who are encouraged to share their hopes and dreams for their child with us so that we can all work together to make those aspirations happen for their family and our boarding family. Our boarding care is individualised and entirely focused on the child achieving her potential, whatever that may be.
Access and communication is as flexible as possible. Parents, family members and guardians are encouraged to pop in with little notice, and we prefer to maintain regular contact with positive tales of success rather than just calling when things have gone a bit off kilter.
Our occasional boarders visit for a number of reasons: to stay late for a school production without getting baby sister out of bed; to enable parents to avoid dodgy babysitters or to avoid having to ask elderly parents to step in for important and unavoidable business trips. However, mostly they come because they know that their full time boarding friends are having great fun in a safe environment. We have six extra girls who stay every Friday night and turn others away because we don’t have room…if these girls felt that boarding was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ they just wouldn’t come.
My personal attitude to boarding is coloured by my experience of being the child who wasn’t allowed to board. My own parents regarded boarding as an abomination and because of that view I attended at least five primary schools and three secondary schools in three countries. My parents had no personal or familial experience of boarding and thought they were being kind. It certainly wasn’t a confidence building experience for me.
The children in our boarding house are outstanding ambassadors for Pocklington School Foundation and a credit to their families. At the outset some feel understandably wobbly, but they become confident, charming and hardworking individuals with amazing social skills. Above all they are HAPPY members of society who maintain and build upon their loving bonds with their parents despite being away from home.
However, I’m definitely not a boarding school zealot –boarding is not for every parent or every child. It is not perhaps what any of us would wish for in a perfect world but it’s important to say that in a world full of imperfection and uncertainty boarding can be a joyful, fulfilling and stabilising experience for many children.
Please don’t summarily judge forward thinking, modern boarding schools and their kind, dedicated professional staff or the parents, who for a myriad of reasons, choose to, or need to use them. Surely we parent in whatever way suits us best and we shouldn’t feel threatened by the differing decisions of others.
If your child has tried boarding and it didn’t work for them, then you may have been unlucky and you might try again at a later stage. Alternatively, you and they may just be totally cognisant about what works for your own family unit.
If as parents, you need boarding to be part of your child’s life I advise you to ignore the gainsayers; do please ask hard questions of yourselves and the boarding staff you choose and then let your young people start their exciting adventures with your confident blessings and brave support.