We’ve all read horror stories and seen tear-jerking documentaries about children ‘abandoned’ by their parents at boarding school. For all of those who hated their time at boarding school there are many, many more who enjoyed it and thrived in the environment. It’s time to set the record straight and present a balanced view of boarding school today.
I have been a boarder The Cheltenham Ladies’ College for two years and, like the majority of students, ‘home’ is overseas in Dubai. The College welcomes girls from all over the world. The experience of sharing life and study with both British and fellow international students in a richly multicultural environment has been unparalleled.
The decision to apply to boarding school was largely due to the fact that Dubai’s primary schools tend to be better established and higher performing than their secondary counterparts. Despite having thoroughly enjoyed Jumeriah College, my plans to go to university in the UK made boarding school feel like a rite of passage.
When I began, aged 14, homesickness kicked in with a vengeance at breakfast on my first morning. The girl sitting next to me started it – big silent tears pouring down behind her glasses – and before long the entire table of new girls were sobbing into their Cornflakes.
About the only familiar things were my iPod and my underwear. I was in the damp Cotswolds wearing an ill-fitting and moss green uniform, eating porridge. Suddenly the spas, 7 star hotels and sandy beaches that I had taken for granted in Dubai were seen, rightly, as luxuries.
The transition was a much-needed reality check. Very rapidly it became clear that there were no maids to make my bed, manicures were to be done at home and sushi was a treat.
I grew accustomed to my surroundings (a chaotic schedule that left me no time to sulk undoubtedly helped) and before long, I was entirely comfortable.
Distance and time apart can be seen as putting huge strains on a family. I would say that for most families, who cannot claim perfect relationships, it makes us value our time together more. My parents and I keep in contact regularly during term-time and with holidays a mere 6 weeks apart, we don’t miss out on much. The situation may not be ideal but frequently parents who send their children to boarding school do so because they have highly mobile jobs, work for long hours or live in an environment where satisfactory schooling is not provided.
Boarding school is a form of tough love and a system that, though not always most popular with pupils, will be appreciated later in life. Boarders will grow into independent, tolerant and adaptable men and women, ideally equipped to thrive later in life. The boarding environment has taught me a range of valuable things, from how to live civilly with others, to how to manage pressure and responsibility.
Facilities at boarding schools are generally outstanding and due to an impressive teacher-pupil ratio, the focus is on giving committed students the attention that they rightly deserve. Most of these schools offer therapists, help from students as well as guidance from committed tutors. Personal experience at the Cheltenham Ladies’ College has taught me that counsellors and friendly faces are around every corner.
I grant that there are some desperately sad aspects of boarding school life. However, at worst, these are sixth form boys accidentally calling matron "mummy" or a few sexually frustrated girls squealing uncontrollably at the sight of boy.
Boarding school may not leave everyone with the most delightful of memories but I feel the benefits reaped by boarders indisputably outweigh the disadvantages. The reality is, our battered trunks, hymn books and lacrosse sticks have stood the test of time and while boarding school may not be perfect, it is more than worth it.
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Mara Westley has just completed her GCSEs. She returns to Cheltenham Ladies College in the Fall to start Sixth Form, and the IB curriculum.