Sending a child to boarding school need not be a traumatic move

It takes research, visits and a family adjustment, but sending a child to boarding school need not be a traumatic move, writes Karen Pittar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 October, 2013, 12:20am

Ask children their impressions of life at boarding school, and they generally fall into two camps: the Harry Potter-Hogwarts camp, where it's all delicious meals, great friends and thrilling adventures; or the Roald Dahl camp, where slops, beatings and loneliness are the norm.

Boarding school is a divisive topic that elicits extreme reactions from both children and adults. But what is boarding really like? What are the pitfalls and, indeed, the upsides?

Mandi Corso, a mother of three, is the first to admit that for years she and her husband, Patrick, were firmly in the "we will never send our child to board" camp. But in April, their 11-year-old son, Oliver, flew to Britain to start boarding school.

"Our views and world were thrown into disarray when an educational specialist suggested we consider Summer Fields in Oxford," Mandi Corso says. "We had heard of the school's great reputation, but knew if we were to be thorough about deciding on the next stage of Oliver's schooling, we had to visit. We were taken on a school tour by two pupils and were blown away by their composure, the sports facilities and the professionalism and warmth of the staff. My husband and I both had an instant gut feeling this was the perfect fit for Oliver. He was offered a place and we never looked back."

Oliver says he was nervous about starting at Summer Fields, but the experience has been better than expected. "I have been a boarder since April. I chose this time because it was the summer term, with nicer weather and the cricket season, which is one of my favourite sports. I was looking forward to going, but I was worried about being away from home. It took a few weeks, but now I really enjoy boarding; it is technically a massive sleepover with all of your friends."

Boarding has clearly been a success for the Corso family, but it took some preparation and, even before that, serious consideration that prospective boarding parents should do before sending their child away. Experts agree a positive experience starts with open and honest communication and lots of research.

Tina Twigg is head of boarding at Canberra Girls Grammar School in Australia. Twigg is in charge of the pastoral, academic and practical daily needs of 80 girls aged 11 to 18. "I believe deciding to board is a family decision, with the views and attitude of the potential boarder being very important. Careful research is also required to find a school to suit your child. Parents know their child better than anyone else, so find schools that will nurture your child's areas of interest."

Twigg goes on to say that the best form of research is to visit the school and meet the staff and pupils: "Visits to the schools and meeting with boarding house staff are vital. I believe in first impressions, that once you step into that boarding house, you will very quickly know whether your child will thrive. You also need to take into account boarding house security - will my child be safe here? - and values. What are the school's values, but more importantly, what are the boarding house values? And don't be afraid to ask questions. That is what the boarding house staff are there for; parents are entrusting us with their children, so good boarding house staff will never deem a question as trivial or unimportant."

Preparation also means honesty. "Plan and prepare," says Twigg. "Discuss how life will change. Have a communication plan like a weekly Skype, or a daily text message. Always be reassuring and supportive and focus on the short term. Of course, you must have a good relationship with, and trust in, your boarding staff so you can contact them and ask for an update on your child's well-being."

These sentiments are echoed by Dr Suzanne Meenan, a clinical psychologist in Hong Kong who says that because privacy can be hard to find in a busy boarding house, creating clever ways to keep lines of communication open is key.

"Ensure there is a regular and reliable method of communication and discuss with the child what to do if certain things happen, like a bullying incident. Children who are bullied in boarding schools tend to keep it to themselves for longer because they can," Meenan says. "Having a traffic light communication system in place can be helpful: a red light message can communicate something is really wrong, an amber light message can communicate a bad day but that everything will be OK, and a green light message is that everything is going well. These can be in the form of a word, like banana for a red-light message."

Mandi Corso says talking to Oliver and being brutally honest played a large part in preparing for boarding. "We spent a great deal of time with Oliver discussing all aspects of his new environment, and made it clear it was as much his decision as ours. We were open and frank about the inevitable homesickness and discussed tangible actions he could take to brace himself for those moments: keep busy by signing up for different activities, read, find a ball and go outside, and to speak to an adult if it all becomes too overwhelming." What perhaps surprised the family most was how big their adjustment was once Oliver left.

"Some of the worst aspects of boarding are more directed to the parents than the child," says Corso. "Nothing can truly prepare you for the reality of no longer having your child present in the daily fabric of your life. The first few weeks are numbing and often fathers find this stage harder to process than mothers. But with time, you learn to recalibrate; you have to adopt a positive approach." The initial disruption in the family has also had some positive aspects: Corso says their second son has risen to the occasion, relishing his new role as the oldest.

Saffie Turl, 13, started boarding at The King's School in Canterbury, England, last month; she and her Hong Kong-based family are slowly adjusting to the new routine. She says she loves the experience, but there have been challenges. "I have only been a boarder for around four weeks. The first few days were so nerve-racking; I knew hardly anyone, and finding my way around a huge campus was difficult. But everyone helped, and I have made friends quickly and everyone is lovely, including the teachers. I'm not homesick, but I miss my family who live half a world away. If you do get homesick, it can be terrible and I think, from my friends' experiences, it is the worst feeling because at the time they feel they won't be able to fix it."

Homesickness and separation are real issues for boarders old and new and can be difficult to deal with - for staff, parents and students. Twigg says homesick or sad phone calls are inevitable. The key is to not react too strongly; rather, empathise and then contact staff to get a fuller picture. "Often the phone call is a 'snapshot' and boarding-house staff are seeing the 'video'. A parent can be worried silly about the distressed phone call. However, the staff will see and can attest [that the boarder is] back in the courtyard, laughing and interacting positively with their peers, unaware of the distress they have caused at home."

Anne and Gary Johnson are farmers in Boorowa, Australia, a small town a two-hour drive from Canberra. They have sent all three of their daughters to board at Canberra Girls Grammar School. "We wanted to give our children opportunities not available to them in our small community and to broaden their horizons," says Anne. "Communication today is easy compared to our generation, and the girls can regularly keep us up to date with their lives and vice versa." Their youngest daughter, Helen, 16, has been boarding for two years and says she has made friends for life at the boarding house - fondly called the BoHo. "The best part of boarding is having so many different 'sisters', and you have them for life. You go through a lot together, funny and sad times. My very best moments have been in the boarding house."

Sending a child to board is a huge step, but handled properly it can be a positive experience for all concerned. "Some of the things I have heard from the girls over the years really do warm the heart," says Twigg. "There is the sense of a big, caring family or 'I am more independent.' or 'It made me focus academically.'"

For the Corsos, there is little doubt boarding was the right decision for Oliver, and they are now looking at sending their second son to Britain. "Boarding school provides an invaluable and unique opportunity for children to establish their independence in a secure environment. They get the best academically and a tremendous sense of camaraderie through living together and through the many sports and after-school activities," Mandi says.

Perhaps the final word should go to Oliver: "Children should go into boarding with good thoughts and try and make it the best place you have ever been. You might feel homesick, but there will usually be a phone where you can talk to parents - although my parents complain to me about not calling them enough because I am having too much fun."