A Case for Sending Teenagers to Boarding School

When my children started boarding at 11 they were the 5th consecutive generation of Amblers to go to boarding school in England.  My great-grandfather and grandfather’s parents had settled in India where they had a number of successful family businesses.   A lack of appropriate local schools amongst the indigo plantations and slate quarries of Bihar forced them to a boarding school in Brighton.  My father boarded in rural Wiltshire from age 8 whilst the Second World War was raging.  His father was working round the clock on a secret submarine sonar system. I boarded from 13 in the Home Counties to give my education stability whilst my parents worked in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tanzania and the Philippines.  My two children subsequently boarded in the Home Counties whilst I worked in Japan, USA and Middle East. On moving to Dubai I anticipated not being moved by my employers within 5 years and gave them both the option of going to a good local British day school and living at home. They both politely declined.

I cannot speak for my great-grandfather (as I never met him) but all other members of my family regard boarding school as some of the happiest and most positive experiences in their life. Certainly their letters and photographs of this time is testament to this fact.  My father was particularly enthusiastic.

Perhaps it was the benefits of a stable school life where we made lifelong friends and concentrated on our studies.  With no “school run” we had more time for hobbies, musical instruments and playing for the First XI.  Combining this with the excitement of large amounts of international travel made this childhood almost idyllic. I certainly looked forward to the school holidays, particularly when my parents were in a new country, but I looked forward to going back to school and seeing my friends at the end of them.

I certainly never felt rejected and neither, on close questioning, do my children. Ultimately they chose to stay as boarders when given the choice.  Modern boarding is, after all, a giant sleep over.   Most teenagers would prefer to be with their friends than their parents in any case.

Boarding Schools teach social confidence, social tolerance and consideration of others when living together. I made great lifelong friends, many of whom I would never have bothered to get to know properly unless we were living in such close proximity.  Up to 40% of pupils in boarding schools are foreign, giving opportunities to make friendships with children from different cultures and (surprisingly) different social backgrounds.  The large numbers of bursaries and scholarships create eclectic boarding communities.

Foreign students at UK boarding schools

It was noticeably easier for me to take the relatively small step to University life. Spotting fellow boarders at University was easy during the first year as we were so much more confident and independent.  The average British University today has over 15,000 students from many different cultures and backgrounds.  This is a massive, bewildering experience and a giant step for many teenagers who have left home for the first time.  Without adequate preparation this can be overwhelming.

I find many parents totally against boarding on principle, fuelled by their own personal emotional feelings with little consideration for their children’s views.  When living in the USA a great many of our American friends and acquaintances were shocked at how cruel we were for sending our children to boarding school in England.  “I could never send my children away to school” was the typical response.  The emphasis was always on the “I”.  I would mischievously reply “but what would your children prefer?”  This often caused a hesitation and then an admission that their children would probably quite like the idea.  One even admitted that perhaps it was selfish to think only of her own needs as a parent.  Children are not pets, to be kept for our own amusement and satisfaction and to fulfill our parental nurturing fantasies.  They are independent beings with their own opinions.

I’m fascinated by the knee-jerk assumption made by many parents that the best way to bring up children is in a nuclear family (parents and children living in a single dwelling without extended family).  How real is the idyllic nuclear family?  Parents are often preoccupied with their careers, commuting, affairs, divorce and their own personal inadequacies and insecurities.  With both parents working the reality is more often the “latch key” teenager, with no adult supervision for much of their day.

Also, when in human history has the nuclear family been the norm?

Actually there are almost no periods of human history where we lived as a nuclear family apart from the brief period since WW2.  For most of our evolutionary past humans lived in small communities, extended families and tribes. Parents often died when their children were young, leaving them to be brought up by relatives.  Children routinely left home in their early teens to work, fight or to experience and explore the world. They were often sent away to be educated by living with friends and relatives and often abroad. Boys of all classes were sent into the British Navy as young as 10 and didn’t see their parents for years. They were fighting battles in their early teens and could captain a ship before 20. The working classes sent their children away to earn money.  They were often recruited into armies as baggage boys and drummers and left home for years to go on long campaigns.  Girls were sent away into domestic service.  The Romans and Greeks also had similar practices.  Of course I am not claiming that small children do not need to be with their mother, just that the long-term nuclear family is not a natural state.  We are a social species, after all.

There must be some reason why teenagers behave like… well, like teenagers.  Teenagers living in nuclear families can be troubled and troublesome.  Many a parent-child relationship is damaged by living in too close proximity during adolescence. Teenagers have evolved to be confrontational and contrary to ensure they strike out on their own – to be more independent.  Something needs to make them want to fly the nest, which is an evolutionary imperative.

Parents have not evolved to spend decades together either. In our evolutionary past we just didn’t live that long and bonding between parents for 10 years or so was perfectly sufficient to give any offspring a good start.  The modern divorce and separation rate is testament to this fact. Living with divorced or divorcing parents and witnessing their turmoil and warring can have an adverse effect on children.  Boarding school can separate them from much of this unpleasantness.

So teenagers were never meant to be part of a nuclear family and they naturally start flexing for more independence and more time with their peers.  So perhaps the best solution is to give it to them in a controlled way?  Boarding school can provide this halfway house between childhood and adult independence or University.

Boys particularly benefit from experiencing the different male role models that boarding schools provide. Dads at home believe they are indispensable, but the average father sees his children for less than a few hours during the working week. They are busy working and commuting and getting on with their own lives.  In any case, he is just one limited role model.  However good we Dads think we are there are other methods of getting through life. In our evolutionary past we had more exposure to extended family, grandparents and local leaders.  Modern life is dominated by mothers, female teachers, a limited peer group, separation, divorce and both parents absent at work.  Boarding school exposes young men to male teachers, housemasters, house tutors, team coaches and older boys in a familiar, stable environment.  Boarders therefore have a wider range of role models, strategies and behaviours they can draw on in later life.

Many regard the main advantage of boarding is to be set free from the stifling and claustrophobic environment created by over over-cautious, controlling, domineering and interfering parents. The parents, of course, would call this love.

Access to organised sport is also cited a good reason to send teenagers to boarding schools.  There are good practical reasons for adding “body” to the ethos of  “education for the mind, body and spirit”, and it goes beyond training our bodies to avoiding obesity and diabetes.  The British boarding school belief that the taking part in sport is more important than winning may seem old fashioned now, but makes perfect sense for them.    Question: How do you control 1000 adolescent males living in close proximity in a boarding school environment?  Answer: Wear them out.  By having all the boys on the sports fields five afternoons per week, working off their natural energy, frustration and aggression in a controlled and organised way, ensures they are too tired at other times to get into too much trouble.  A lesson the modern world would do well to learn, particularly in our inner cities.

Another aversion to the idea of boarding is giving your children to the care of “strangers”.  Perhaps this is why we prefer to send children to a local school (i.e. within UK) and spend much time assessing the 2000 or so boarding schools available to choose one which we think matches the character and interests of our children.  We choose an ethos and environment, which we find familiar and reassuring. There is a large difference between many of the schools.  Choose between sporty, musical, academic, artistic, dramatic, nurturing, adventurous, disciplined or liberal – take your pick – you’d be surprised at the variety.  We also vet the school and teachers carefully.  Parents often send their children to their alma mater perhaps to add to the familiarity.

In any case, people are only strangers for a short time.  It takes about a week at boarding school for them to become familiar.  You also get to spend 7 years or so with your new peers, so they become very familiar – more like brothers than friends.  I’m still in touch with many of my teachers and tutors for the same reason.  They become a part of your life.

Our whole life is a series of meeting strangers socially, in business and in everyday life.  Quickly assessing and evaluating strangers and then forming relationships with those useful to us is a useful life skill to learn.  Perhaps another advantage of the wider, more intimate social experience we get at boarding school.

And what of the expensive and time-consuming taxi service parents provide their teenagers?  The endless ferrying of children to and from school and their after school activities?    Latest evidence shows we spend six hours and 43 minutes a week taking our children to and from school and after school clubs, with an additional annual fuel bill of over £1700.  With more boarding school places the environment would benefit from less “school run” traffic congestion and less pollution.  The economy would benefit by parents and teenagers having nearly 7 additional hours to work and study every week.

The final objection to boarding schools is the eye watering cost.  A few prestigious schools charge annual fees well above the pre-tax income of the average family but there are many more reasonably priced private boarding schools.  Don’t forget that the top schools provide bursaries and scholarships for pupils with parents of more limited means.  Ask the school for details.  The tuition fees are typically 2/3 of these costs and there is a sprinkling of good quality State boarding schools, where parents need only find the boarding fees.   Savings would also be made on costs the child would have incurred at home.

The Government could help support boarding costs with tax deductions for parents that needed it and more state funded boarding schools could be created if there was sufficient demand. Our politicians are very vocal about wanting more “child care” provision to help working mothers, particularly politicians from left-of-centre parties.  But they are suspiciously quiet about demanding the provision of more State boarding school places for parents with teenagers.

There are many legitimate concerns about the psychological effect of boarding, particularly from a young age. This is led by Nick Duffell who has written articles and books on the psychological damage he believes boarding can inflict.  Clearly boarding is not suited to everybody, and despite my father’s happy memories, I agree with him that boarding from 8 is too young for many children.  However Mr. Duffell is making money from his psychotherapy practice and his books on the subject.  I wonder what proportion of children who went to boarding school have the problems he proclaims and how many of those would have had problems in life regardless of their schooling?  It is convenient to blame parents, teachers, schools and our circumstances for our own insecurities and inadequacies.

But for balance we should also consider how many other children have had fewer problems in life because they boarded? I know people who think I have had advantages in life because I boarded.  Many Guardian readers complain about the social advantages of boarding school and how unfair it is on people that don’t have this “privilege”!

Many who had terrible experiences at boarding school recall the prodigious use of corporal punishment, which has rightly coloured their opinion of boarding.  There was no corporal punishment at my father’s school (in the 1940s) or mine (1970s and 80s).  My Grandfather and Great-grandfather (and their brothers) all loved their school days.  They spoke fondly of their experiences and have many proud photographs recording their sporting achievements, school trips and great friendships.  Corporal punishment may have been a part of their life, but they never mentioned it.  Day schools also had corporal punishment and parents often used it at home – often quite brutally.  So perhaps they are confusing the punishment regime with boarding, leaving them with a loathing for the school but unable to separate which aspects caused them the most anguish. It is clearly a barbaric, violent and humiliating punishment and rightly consigned to the dustbin of history.  It has been illegal for decades.

Modern boarding schools are also very aware of the possibility of bullying and other types of abuse.  They have many policies and measures in place to detect and prevent them.  All pupils have access to an independent student councilor, a doctor and an on site medical professional – usually a nurse.  There is also a clear structure of pastoral care.  In addition all boarding schools are subject to regularly reviewed National Minimum Standards and a rigorous regime of independent inspection and assessment by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).  Prospective parents should review the latest ISI report on their website before making a decision on a specific school.  Other useful source of independent advice is  The Good Schools Guide, and Independent Schools Council.  Modern boarding is well regulated and provides a warm, pleasant and humane experience.   We should not confuse the old and new regimes.

Even Mr. Duffell is not against boarding per se, just from a young age.  “It could be OK at 15 or 16”, he states.  He also accepts that flexible boarding is obviously better. i.e. where children only board for a few days during the week and go home at weekends.

People not familiar with boarding schools often fail to realise that we put children in boarding school for the benefit of the children. Parents often have a hard time and need to prepare themselves.  My mother and wife cried on leaving their children behind.   I was looking forward to my son starting boarding school because I thought he would enjoy it.  I was right – he did.  But in all the excitement I had forgotten to take my own feeling in account, and missed him terribly.  Parents need to prepare themselves as they generally feel they miss out. The teenage children generally don’t.  In any case parents see their children 6 times per a year during major holidays and half term breaks.

Many modern boarding schools have weekly and flexible boarding options to fit in with parents’ work commitments.  Children come home at weekends or they can be day pupils where parents can book their children into the boarding house on an ad hoc basis according to their work commitments during the week.  This also allows both parents and teenagers to be eased gently into a boarding school routine.  The number of British children in boarding schools has increased recently as working parents seek an alternative to complex child care arrangements.  A total of 45,314 British children currently attend boarding school, up from 37,926 last year.  Among British families boarding is more popular among older children and especially for sixth form (children 16 to 18 years).

Boarding is a personal choice and positive one for a great many children.  The people best placed to know what is best for their children can only be the parents.  They need to assess the right child, at the right age for the right school.  Don’t judge their choice unless you have walked in their shoes.


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