Reasons to attend a boarding school in the UK
Has there ever been a better time to become a boarder at a British boarding school?
Syllabus breadth and depth and standards in education and pastoral care have never been in better shape as they serve to match the expectations of parents and children.
Deservedly so, children generally influence the decisions that families make about the most suitable school for them. For international students, being immersed in an English-speaking environment from an early age can make the difference between detailed theoretical knowledge of the language and confident, natural fluency. In the modern day global market, the advantages of English language proficiency are innumerable.
Samuel Chan: A home away from home
International students moving to the UK will inevitably incur culture shock, and the new surroundings, with vast expanses of green space and imposing, historic buildings, can seem very daunting. This feeling is very common and is nothing out of the ordinary. With the support systems in place at UK boarding schools, there is nothing for children to fear or feel the need to run away from.
The most sensible thing for parents to do is to aim to send their children to boarding school before term starts so that they can familiarise themselves with the school and the surrounding area. When term begins, and hundreds upon hundreds of children descend upon a school, things will at least seem a little more bearable for children if they are aware of what is around them and where to go.
If there is a feeling that children have been thrown in at the deep end, or are experiencing those common starters’ nerves, UK boarding schools are certainly on the ball when it comes to helping children to settle in and experience that “home away from home” environment. They will be welcomed and treated like family members by those who look after the houses and, very often, a “buddy”. This is a name for an older pupil who is responsible for showing new pupils around the house and helping them to make sense of their timetable and deal with any other queries.
For overseas students, schools do strive make the transition from home to school as smooth as possible. Schools recognise the fact that children need a combination of private space and companionship which is why large bedrooms are often shared by half a dozen youngsters, but with each individual having access to his or her own wardrobe, locker and often a built-in desk.
The phrase “a home away from home” can be interpreted in different ways as children move through the school years. As previously mentioned, youngsters often share with many other pupils yet still have all the conveniences they would expect to have at home. As children get older, they are likely to find the numbers in their bedrooms decrease, with possibly two or three sharing up to the age of 16, and single study-bedrooms common for sixth-form students. These rooms often contain en-suite facilities as schools seek to prepare students for a new way of life at university and university halls of residence.
Dedicated, hardworking and friendly houseparents are vital to the day-to-day running of boarding schools and deserve praise for creating a homely environment for children. Very often, houseparents become the most important people in a child’s boarding life and they take their responsibilities very seriously indeed.
Kirsty Wong: Making friends and broadening horizons
Initial anxiety and homesickness soon dissipates once boarders get into their stride with making friends from around the world.
A great deal of early anxiety results from the worries children have about making friends and fitting in with pre-established social groups at boarding school. They do not need to worry. Some of the finest qualities of boarding schools are that they are inclusive, welcoming and go out of their way to make children feel at home and comfortable around their peers.
More than anything else, perhaps, the first few weeks of boarding school are more about broadening social horizons and companionship. As we all experienced, reserved Hong Kong and Malaysian students have the opportunity to “come out of their shell” and make friends from around the world. It is not all about hiding in the corner and waiting for others to make the first move. The nature of boarding school, where children are encouraged to express themselves and be confident, does allow children to open up. Friends for life are waiting to be made, and it is beneficial to mingle with children from other countries to broaden their cultural horizons and hone their English skills.
Technology and mobile phones have taken over meaning that face-to-face communication can often play second fiddle. It is vital for Hong Kong and Malaysian students to get away from this lifestyle, as much as they can, and get stuck in at boarding school. This means signing up for societies and activities early to make contact with other children. Many of us here at Britannia did not hesitate to sign up for several sports, debating societies and other social clubs which helped us to become the well-rounded and confident people we think we are today.
From the start, children need to be themselves and not act or say things in ways they normally would not. The worst thing a child can do is to invent stories and things about themselves because children are clever – they will see through the lies. By complementing all the above points of advice with lots of smiling, boarders will begin to make friends for life.
Vivian Yuan: World-class facilities
With ISC-member boarding schools continually investing in brand new or upgraded boarding facilities, facilities in science, art, music, information and communication technology, and sports are often state of the art.
At most boarding schools, classrooms with the latest technology, laboratories, dormitories and common rooms can be found, while swimming pools, theatres, courts, pitches and tracks provide artistic and sporty types with incredible opportunities to hone their skills and make something of themselves.
It is common knowledge that the British do sport – in a very big way. In most boarding schools, children can play netball, rugby, cricket, football, tennis, badminton, squash and many others. The majority of schools now have world-class athletics tracks, gymnastics halls and swimming pools. In a typical UK boarding school there are over 30 different PE activities to choose from.
The competition between schools is fierce and they are now going out of their way to provide opportunities to students well beyond the traditional sports such as football and rugby. Fencing, for example, is offered by Queen Ethelburga’s and Wellington School which both have their own dedicated fencing salles. Laser pistol shooting is also offered at Queen Ethelburga’s. Clay pigeon shooting is another intriguing rarity, with Strathallan and Stowe Schools, among others, leading the way.
Another sport which schools are becoming keen to offer, either within their own grounds or in cooperation with nearby clubs, is golf. One such school which has a nine-hole golf course is Wellington College, where the standard of golf is of the highest order. Other schools run their own golf academies. Scottish school, Loretto, has had its own Golf Academy since 2002 and, in addition to honing their skills at the School’s practice facilities, young golfers have access to some of the most stunning courses in Scotland.
One statistic speaks volumes about how students can benefit from having access to world-class sporting facilities at boarding school. Research by the Sunday Telegraph has revealed that 20% of the 440 Team GB Olympic athletes competing at London 2012 went to independent schools. This figure relates to those competitors for whom the paper was able to determine their place of education. The total is certainly eye-catching especially when one considers that just 7% of pupils in the UK attend independent schools.
Taking care of students and parents
Pastoral care and the well-being of pupils
Parents can be assured that their children will be safe when they walk through the school gates. The emphasis that is now placed on pastoral care and personal mentoring is perhaps the biggest difference between the boarding schools of today and those of 20 or 30 years ago. UK independent schools were always academically successful, but today they pride themselves on being just as successful at helping students with the social and emotional challenges that growing up can bring. Unlike the learning environment in low to medium performing state schools, the individual and caring approach to students present at independent schools, in a calming and gentle atmosphere, is really a sight to behold.
Excellent pastoral care goes a long way to keeping students supported and in line. Due to their hardworking, yet easy-going nature, matrons are often the unsung heroes when it comes to the running of a school. Among many duties, they have to deal with medical complaints, mending uniforms, correcting table manners and separating sparring pupils. In addition to the matrons, housemasters, housemistresses and counsellors also play a role in maintaining the students’ excellent emotional well-being.
All schools will have firm and effective policies to handle bullying. Staff know the value of taking swift action to deal with situations as they arise and before they become serious. Schools are accountable to pupils themselves, to parents who have entrusted them with their child, and to the inspectors who keep an eye on proceedings. With boarding staff increasingly benefiting from the university-accredited training offered by the Boarding Schools’ Association, schools are more secure and more aware of pupils’ needs than in the past.
In terms of the classroom environment, a favourable student-to-staff ratio makes all the difference. According to the ISC, the average ratio in ISC-member independent schools is one teacher for every 9.3 students in 2014, compared to one for 17.7 in state-maintained mainstream schools in 2012 (the most recent year for which figures are available). This not only reflects a school’s willingness to teach a wide range of subjects, but also that every student can be looked after, both academically and pastorally. For children who find a subject challenging, this ratio ensures that they will never find themselves being left behind. Overall, a learning environment is created which caters to the needs of the individual and his or her learning styles rather than to the needs of the institution.
Modern boarding – a partnership between schools and parents
Independent schools pride themselves on being available to parents. Parents can email teachers directly and regular open evenings are held to discuss their children’s needs and development. One of the most frequent questions put to Britannia’s consultants is: “Will I be able to get in touch with my child when I like?”. Our answer is always – “absolutely yes”. Parents of boarders and the houseparents in charge of boarding houses are in constant reassuring contact by phone, e-mail and, where possible, regular meetings. Private telephone kiosks and booths are available in many boarding houses, and few children go to boarding school without a mobile phone.
The majority of houseparents are sympathetic to the fact that time zones may hinder communication between children and parents. If the middle of the night is the only time possible to talk to parents then houseparents are very tolerant and understanding of this somewhat inconvenient matter. Modern boarding is truly a partnership between school and parents, with both parties having the child’s well-being and best interests at heart.
Preparing for the future
Asian students and the development of English language skills
British universities have been providing specifically tailored programmes helping prepare international students for higher education in the UK for over twenty-five years now, part of which involves English language tuition/lectures for students wishing to improve and develop their skills before entering into the university system, though of course none of this is required. These courses have proven to be extremely successful with students from Asia, and have greatly enhanced their language abilities, most notably in the international business arena, but not only, with rapid changes occurring in IT technology, too. All universities in the UK have extensive experience working with students from Asia, with specific emphasis placed on business studies, computer science and engineering.
Students from Asia represent a huge financial investment for UK universities, which has brought with it great cultural variety. It is common and very popular to enrol in campus organisations run by Asian students for Asian graduates/post-graduates, thus making entry into the British system as culturally painless as possible.
Bearing in mind the quality of education children receive, the evolution of my English language skills at boarding school is really the icing on the cake. It is one thing to study English, it is completely another to be exposed to the language on a daily level, whether on or off campus. Children will be able to grapple with dialects and accents, which thoroughly improved not only academic and formal English, but also casual language.
University and beyond
Many parents see boarding in the sixth form as the perfect preparation for university life. The pupil feels more independent, taking more responsibility for his or her daily life and for the discipline of study, while parents have the reassurance that someone is keeping a discreetly watchful eye on their child’s welfare – making sure that they eat properly and are not staying up too late at night. Almost a third of sixth-formers in independent schools are boarders, and of those, 90% board full time.
The majority of boarding schools have h5 links with UK universities, and their careers tutors are well practised in overseeing the application itself. Ninety per cent of boarders proceed to the university of their choice. Helping pupils proceed to the right course at the right university, whether in the UK, in the pupil’s home country or elsewhere in the world, is part of the boarding school package.
Whether or not a student decides to go on to further study, a boarding education is one of the best possible starts in life a young person could wish for. Boarding pupils develop independence and confidence, a capacity to get on with others and relate to people from all over the world and from cultures very different to their own. Living in the UK, absorbing language and culture, and developing colloquial fluency almost incidentally to their whole experience of education, equips pupils whose first language is not English to find their feet in the global economy.