Many boarding schools have strong links with the Armed Forces. Hilary Moriarty, National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, looks at the role played by schools and how they support service families.
If ever there were families which need boarding, it’s the families where one or both parents serve in Britain’s Armed Forces. Now more than ever, perhaps, the Forces themselves are likely to be mobile, and if Mum or Dad is posted at regular intervals, what happens to their children’s education? Moving for Mum or Dad, or both, may be absolutely not optional; moving schools for children can be disastrous. Educationists would say that continuity of education itself is important, and it clearly is when children reach the GCSE years or the two years for A levels or IB. These days, young people themselves will make the point. Listen to Abigail, a Year 10 pupil at Wellington School in Somerset: ‘For military children, boarding school is a life-saver. At ten, I had moved seven times and had just heard that I was going to move for another time; I had met so many different people over the years and made many great friends, but I had lost them all every time I got out a moving box and began to pack up all my stuff. Moving around was an amazing experience, don’t get me wrong, but… I was lacking in important social skills because I could only keep friends for two and a half years. I found it hard to make friends that I could actually trust. I was also very far behind everyone else in my general knowledge skills because of my education constantly being interrupted by moving.’
It’s fascinating that for Abigail, the education bit comes in a short sentence right at the end; for her, what matters is friendships. And psychologists confirm that as children grow up, friends are indeed more important than family. Research has indicated that when they move school, children regress academically by about six months, while they acclimatise to the new school, ‘sussing out’ its new hierarchies and factions, finding their way to be accepted, really making friends as opposed to hoping they will. Abigail had worked this out even at the tender age of ten:
‘It took a while to convince my parents to send me to Wellington School but my brother and I finally managed to convince them and it was something of a relief when we were accepted.’ But even for Abigail, keen to board, it was not an easy transition: ‘The first three months were pretty terrible. I was apart from my parents, in a new school where the only person that I knew was my brother, had to catch up on two and a half years of school work and found it very difficult to make friends.’ But the early difficulties did not last long: ‘This period of time however was soon over after discovering the fun of boarding school and the real sense of community it had. I suddenly found myself thrown into something that I really enjoyed. The school became my family and I made friendships that I knew wouldn’t be broken because of a cardboard moving box.’
British boarding schools are well aware of the difficulties a new young boarder will encounter. While many viewers of the recent television programme Leaving Home at 8 sympathised deeply with the child who found separation from her mother most difficult, most of us were also impressed by what we saw of Highfield School, a prep school in Hampshire, where caring adults did their constant best to help the child and her friends to become accustomed to all that the school had to offer. That rich diet of activity and support is all part of the attraction for parents and boarders alike. The days of stiff upper lips and being told to pull your socks up while you wept are long gone. The BSA itself runs courses for boarding staff on subjects such as ‘Supporting the Emotional Needs of Boarders’ and the full time care of other people’s children is now a very professional matter, particularly in the younger years, for obvious reasons.
Bob Dunford, Head of Boarding at Chilton Cantelo School near the Somerset/Dorset border, himself having been a services child and a soldier, can empathise with and relate to service families and understands what it is like for a child with parents serving overseas: ‘It is vitally important that such children are kept busy, and here in the evenings there’s a range of activities from drama through music and games to outdoor education on offer.’ Chilton Cantelo even has a thriving Drum Corps, which last year performed 50 parades in three counties, raising £3000 for Help the Heroes, a cause close to the heart of the school. Clearly, there are different ways to keep busy, and what fun to be able to perform in a drum band.
Here is Rebecca, now a Lower Sixth Former at Wellington School, reflecting on her own progress from child of eight to happy, confident young woman of sixteen: ‘I began boarding at the age of eight, by which time I had already moved houses six times, consequently meaning I lacked a sense of stability in my life. Just when I had begun to settle into yet another school and made new friends, it was time to move on to another posting. It was for this reason that my parents decided to send me to a preparatory boarding school named Chafyn Grove, a place where I could become accustomed to a routine and to act as a base should my parents be posted overseas again. Little did my parents know the reason why I was so enthusiastic when I initially found out I was being ‘sent away’ was due to the fact I presumed every boarding school was comparable to Hogwarts… Nevertheless, despite my severe disappointment at the normality of Chafyn Grove, it was within my five years there that I met some of my closest friends and practised a wide range of activities I would not have otherwise experienced.’
There is no doubt that children whose parents deliver them to boarding schools then go to war have particular needs. For such children, it’s not just a case of missing Mum and Dad, it’s also about fear and anxiety for their parents’ safety – almost a reversal of the usual parent/child relationship, as if a child were to say, ‘Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine – but you be careful out there.’ Boarding schools are certainly alert to the emotional roller coaster such children will experience even with a simple activity like watching the TV news or catching sight of a newspaper headline. Here is what Shaun, now a Year 9 pupil at Wellington School has to say about his early days as a boarder: ‘It was a hard first term but the boys in Darks (a particular boarding house) made me feel welcome, also the activities that we did such as bowling and cinema trips at the weekend as well as my friendships with Harry and Alex, and soon I was over the worst. I was fine for a while but when my Dad continued to go in and out of the country my worries for him got me stressed out and I found my school work lacking and my grades deteriorating. My Mum took me home at weekends and tried to make me feel happier and for a bit longer I was OK. Then my Mum got a new job out in Afghanistan and I struggled again. This meant I was spending more time in the boarding house which helped me to settle into Darks and get along with those within. I also got to do more activities with the house such as hide-and-seek in the dark and dodge ball – an incredibly entertaining game to be sure!’
Shaun’s is a very honest account of managing to cope with being a boarder and anxiety about his parents. Getting home for weekends with his Mum clearly helped, and the kind of flexibility about boarding which the school demonstrated is now quite common in many boarding schools. Shaun is perhaps a little unusual in having both parents involved in an active theatre of war, and faced further difficulties with major leg surgery, but he ends his contribution to this article with considerable good cheer: ‘Finally this year, I joined Willows House making more friends and achieving more goals. Now… my grades are at an all time high since I started school and I hope they will keep improving… I look forward again this year to another ski trip.’ The flexibility of boarding in any school can be something of a two-edged sword. If too many children go home at weekends, children whose families are overseas may find themselves with less company and perhaps fewer activities going on. When choosing a school, do ask about the details of weekends – numbers, particularly in your child’s age group, activities, costs.
Boarding schools cannot be home, but they do try to make all their boarders feel that at school they have found another family. Abigail confirms that it is often so: ‘Within my boarding house, it is good to know that if I ever need to talk to someone and can’t reach my parents, I have fifty-one other people to choose from. By being at Wellington the most important years of my education have been constant and full. My decision to go to boarding school has been my best so far. I get to travel around with my parents and have made amazing friends from all different nationalities throughout the five years I have been here. It has become a huge part of my life.’ Rebecca agrees: ‘I am now… living in a house with fifty two girls. As an only child it is this which has made my time at Wellington so enjoyable, as to me all the girls within Beech are the equivalent of a huge family.’
Parents contemplating sending their child to a boarding school may be surprised to hear that the children themselves often report a strengthening of the ties that bind them to parents and family, rather than the reverse. Young people grow in confidence and self-possession, but home is where the heart is. This is how Thom, a Year 11 pupil at Wellington School, describes it: ‘I feel boarding has changed me as a person in a few ways. I have become closer to my family, which has led me to become more open about myself. I have learnt some valuable skills and lessons in life, not always in a way that is the easiest and most importantly I have become more outgoing and confident in achieving things. Being away from your parents makes you realise how much you appreciate them and depend on them… So although you are without your parents and family, whether they are abroad at home or serving somewhere, it makes it much more special when you return home. I find that with every time I return home I feel much closer to my family.’ As a parent of a boarder, in or out of the country, that’s exactly what one would wish.