BY MRS VIOLAINE LUDWICK, ASSISTANT HEAD (BOARDING)
I went to boarding school in the late 70s and having worked in boarding for the last 20 years I can certainly appreciate the many changes there have been over the last few decades.
Boarding for me was a memorable experience and one that I enjoyed immensely. My school was a very small independent establishment by the sea in Cornwall and very Enid Blyton-esque! In fact it was even called The School of St Clare’s. In those days the highlight of the weekend was a walk (in crocodile lines) across the neighbouring fields. During the week we all waited for Thursday evening with great anticipation as that was the night Top of the Pops was on the TV. However, as one of the youngest boarders, I had to make sure I got there early to save a seat for one of the Prefects. And then I tended to sit on the floor somewhere in the room. I didn’t mind – it was just how things were! I vaguely remember my Housemistresses (I think there were two during the 8 years I spent there) but I don’t remember either of them having much involvement with either myself or my friends. There certainly wasn’t the support structure of house staff, nurses and counsellors that we have now.
Modern boarding at Queenswood
Although the 80s were not that long ago, if you look up Boarding Schools from the past you would see how they have changed over the years and incredibly so in the last 30. It was certainly all rather more austere than what we have now. Luckily long gone are the rows and rows of iron cast beds, scratchy blankets and unappetising school meals. The fabric of boarding houses has changed, together with the meals which nowadays can rival many a top restaurant. Boarders can now pin pictures on walls (and are actively encouraged to do so), and have all their cuddly toys on beds. It is often a home away from home. Housemistresses are now highly educated women who are dedicated educationalists and work in boarding as they can see the benefits of such an education.
Although I loved boarding and my parents made the right choice to send me to St Clare’s, in the late 70s and 80s there was a decline in boarding but then something happened in 1997. After the first Harry books appeared on the scene in 1997, there was a surge in boarding school enrolments. Suddenly, children wanted to move into their own Hogwarts and find friends like Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. It was the “Harry Potter effect” and the books promoted to children the idea that boarding schools can be exciting places. And since then there have been many films that revolve around the boarding house theme. St Trinian’s, Hogwarts and Malory Towers might be the most famous boarding schools but boarding schools in the UK are all strictly unique. Living in a boarding school community leads to learning that is just as (or more) valuable than the education you get strictly in a classroom.
Going to boarding school means having masses of fun and forming rock-solid friendships. What can be better than living and sharing a room with your best friends? Invariably friendships that you make in a boarding school continue through life and you build and extremely strong support network. And, what’s more, these friends come from all over the world and enable you to open your eyes to the global community that is out there. In a day school those opportunities are much more limited. If boarding is the window to global opportunities, then the cosy window seat and the curtains that shield you from the inclement weather is the pastoral care.
Moreover, boarding school alumni are always very enthusiastic and proud of their boarding houses. They remember their house and their house colour (and it is very much their house – don’t forget it!) and the pride they still feel from being part of that house many years down the road. Mine was called St Ia and the house colour was green and to this day I still have a penchant for buying green clothes!
In a boarding community you are in an environment where trying new things is encouraged. When I was at school there were no extra-curricular activities (unless you were on the hockey or netball team) but nowadays after school clubs range from Aerobics to Zumba with drama, music and sport sprinkled in-between. If a pupil has an idea to launch a club (eg Manga club) these things can happen in a boarding environment. And the best thing is that other pupils will also be trying these activities out and there is always someone around to try them out with you. There may well be challenges not only in the extra-curricular activities programme but also in the classroom, but with every little challenge that boarding school presents you learn a little bit more about yourself and become a little bit more autonomous. Because living on your own isn't always easy! There is, of course, plenty of support from school, teachers and peers but you still need to take care of yourself and take responsibility for your own actions to a much greater degree than if you were living at home. The boarding school day will of course have structure but you still need to make choices around how you spend your time, what activities and opportunities to take, and how to create a reasonable balance between work and play.
Traditionally in education the 3 Rs were Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – in boarding they stand for the far more fundamental values of Respect, Relationships and Resilience. If you talk to anyone who went to Boarding school the one thing they have said that Boarding School did for them was to teach them about being more independent and having a certain amount of resilience. In life from time to time we all need a bit of resilience, and there have certainly been times when boarding has taught us that.