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Choosing a British Boarding School - the definitive advice.

Choosing a British Boarding School – the definitive advice.

A fine British boarding school is a national treasure. Social diversity abounds; a balance between specialisation and wide...

1 year ago


A fine British boarding school is a national treasure. Social diversity abounds; a balance between specialisation and wide participation is secured; and a culture of kindness and humility pervades.

Such schools are to be found throughout the Kingdom. Please do not assign value in being close to London for weekends out from school. Weekends at school are full of inter-house activities; this is when friendships are made. Besides, when coming home or to London an extra hour of travel is inconsequential. More important is easy access – through regional airports, proximity to train lines and inexpensive, safe taxi services.

A school that is farther afield may offer unusual opportunities that the famous schools near London cannot. Liveries for children to bring horses and polo ponies; large tracts of private parkland; access to mountain biking at weekends; open sea sailing; a small country town to visit for local shopping and a pizza at weekends. The fast, materialistic and not particularly education conducive environment of a raw metropolis is left behind.

The Child

There is no best school; there are only schools that are right for your child. Even the best-intentioned parents may be unaware that corruption by their own perceptions and aspirations prevents choosing the right school. So parent: question your motives – forensically.

By all means, lead the selection as parents – you know your child – but surrender ownership of the process to the child – (to repeat: the child) who will actually be going to the school. See that child’s eyes observe; then listen to how the impression of a child relates to the quest for security, confidence and stimulation that all children desire.

A feature, teacher or pupil that is reassuring, exciting, and impressive to a child is often missed by parents all together because they are too busy looking for cracks in the paintwork, or marks on the carpet. You are exchanging your home for a shabbier school to house your child. That is of minor importance. What is of major importance is who is going to take over much of your role as a parent.

How interested are these educators in your child as an individual with specific needs and anxieties? Have more than a little Q and A; and at the risk of sounding redundant, ensure that you feel their answers are genuine and revealing. Show and tell – if you reveal your concerns to find that they are showing you everything by telling you nothing, disengage. Facilities cannot be singularly personified into the face of an involved human being who will look after your child.

Trust the educators; feel the sense of community; rate the education environment; then take note of the facilities. These are the priorities to follow.

Name and Notoriety

Britain enjoys around 500 boarding schools. Perhaps no more than a half dozen are household names; and a mere handful of those enjoy global renown.

Please consider that:

  • a) Deserving of their reputations as they may be, the fame of these schools originated due to their proximity to the City of London or the Court.
  • b) While universities note the advantage of private education, attending a famous school makes absolutely no difference to an application whatsoever.
  • c) Are these so called ‘top’ schools the right ones for your child as an individual learner?

So…. Just because you haven’t heard of a particular school is no reason to doubt its suitability for your child; nor to discount the quality of education and array of opportunities, on glorious campus settings. Be bold in your selection: visit, research, explore and make up your own minds free from branding pressures. Hard as it may be, try and block out ‘the noise’ from other parents around you. Common sense in school selection is perhaps the most profoundly powerful tool at a parent’s disposal. Use it.

The Parental Community

Schools cannot do much more than reflect the cultural literacy of the parents that send their children to them. An Open Day will reveal who these parents are, leaving visual calling cards in your hands.

Private tours of schools are not always available at short notice. Please don’t decline an Open Day, because it may be preferable to a private tour. We all have private anxieties about the individuals and families we might wish our children to be surrounded by and inspired amongst. A group tour will reveal them. Chat to other hopeful parents, share stories, look for common ground, observe how they parent. If you feel you share some cultural literacy and humour with these fellow visitors, chances are your children will too. Family friendships should materialise from the right school.

And use the opportunity of not being so closely watched, to linger at notice boards, look into classrooms, observe the way children are going about their day… Have a really good look under the bonnet.

Reality

No boarding school is right for every child and what a dull world it would be if it were. But what can one expect from a school that is right for your child?

Manage your own expectations first. Schools do not make less academically able students into research scientists, no more than they will transform pupils disinterested in sport into Olympians. And no school will supply everything a child needs.

When those needs are great, there may not be a right school until they have been addressed. A teenager with scant motivation, weak concentration, possibly a reliance on screen based activity, and a lack of basic academic skills is not going to be ‘fixed’ by a school within months; allow for years. But the child has to show willingness from the start. Children must only go to board when they can be trusted to take value from the school. Parents are surrendering control, after all, to a houseparent who will have another sixtyish boys and probably his own young family to look after. If your child needs close supervision and one to one mentoring to find success, boarding school might need to wait. Leaving home for university might be a better advised course.

Be that as it may, the 24/7 value of boarding schools is powerful. It can draw out the potential from your children, unlocking intrinsic motivation you never knew existed promoting independence of thought and study – simply being able to keep their room tidy and their work and activity schedule busy and organised, they learn how to look after themselves. They may flourish in a friendship group that persists for the rest of their lives. They may find a level of academic competition, or high standards in the arts, sports or community work that propels them to new highs. They may find quality of teaching that simply does not exist at their local schools.

But Rome was not built in a day – immediate results will be apparent but deep seated behavioural change takes time. Ask not what the school will do for your child, but what your child will do for the school, because schools are limited in what they can achieve without some fuel of intrinsic motivation that, by definition, has to come from the child. They will still discover the odd hidden talent or two and provide the setting for children to safely try to acquire new skills. Almost certainly, they will improve resilience, confidence and communication skills. Nevertheless, be realistic in your expectations. Most people succeed in life, but often not until they leave school. But a school gives the strong foundations, that can wait years for construction above them.

More often than not in a certain subject or activity, your child will fail. Learning the importance of failure and the art of finding success is not a timetabled lesson, but a long term cultural imperative that great boarding schools bestow on their residents. These schools celebrate failure – especially if it is amateur or service based – cultivating it to heroic extremes. One only needs to consider how one great school prides itself for having the most number of old boys killed by tigers… Inventiveness is nigh impossible when failure is feared. And, inventiveness has a long history at British boarding schools; most of the great team sports were invented on their fields or against their walls.

‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics’ (Sir Winston Churchill)

League tables and statistics: these are mainly irrelevant and misleading. Education simply cannot be measured in numerical terms. Provided you choose a school where there is at least one top set where all the pupils will secure the grades for Oxbridge or a top five university in Britain (or top 20 in the USA), the academic opportunity is there.

Being educated just with children who share a standard cognitive profile and are fast readers with relatively high IQs is profoundly ill-advised. It is an un-empathetic, regressive way to prepare for an employment environment where visual, possibly dyslexic but fluidly intelligent thinkers are as valuable to a bank as a mathematical mind; and scientists will increasingly cross over to more artistic fields of endeavour.

Look instead to the value added measures. A school that is four times as easy to gain admission to than a supposed academic power house, quite often has significantly more success with Oxbridge admission or applications to the great creative schools – from MIT to Central St Martin’s – go figure. 

Instead of chasing contrived elitism that has become a danger to itself, try and enjoy the process of visiting some beautiful schools, where you will be revitalised just from being among children who are learning. Don’t worry about getting in. If one school will not take your child, there are plenty of others that will, which will be as impressive and suitable. Stay calm, observe and do not for a moment worry about entrance tests or admissions criteria. The process really can be enjoyable. 

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