Who better to share expert tips and advice on preparing for boarding school than educational consultants, Bonas MacFarlane. Director William Petty explores whether boarding school is the right choice for your child, with advice on how to choose the best school together with some brilliant practical tips on preparing for boarding school life. 

Modern boarding in Britain, in my view, is one of the world’s great educational choices for the lucky families fortunate enough to be able to consider it. An indomitable history looms large over boarding preparatory and public schools; all too often judged unfairly on their assumed past and portrayed in variously dubious guises in literature and film. Don’t use Harry Potter’s Hogwarts as a guide, don’t judge the schools today by former generations, do take a look for yourself, do this even if you’re convinced it’s not for you or your child.

Is boarding school the right option for your child?

There is a feeling I still get to this day when I visit my former boarding school. It begins just as the road inclines a touch winding round as it reaches the school’s outer limits. The sensation is one of those not pleasant but not un-pleasant deep tummy non-rumblings that are often associated with butterflies. The feeling today is as visceral as it was during those five years of Sunday evening exeat returns back in the bad old 90s. I cannot tell you what the feeling was but it certainly wasn’t dread, I loved every minute of boarding life, I loved it at the time and the more I look back the more I realise how massive the privilege was not only to attend an independent boarding school but to have had a really great experience from start to finish.

British boarding schools

At that time, boarding was deemed for the more robust child perhaps. My experience of my friends at the time across their various boarding schools was that if you were in the happy half of the pupil population, you would have the BEST time. If you were not then things could be very bleak indeed. Sad as this is to admit now. Blissfully, we have come a long way since those early days of central heating not being a given in the boarding house, smashing each other up is definitely not ok, and you should never be generally miserable and have to put up with it.

How boarding schools have changed

British boarding schools have led the way on safeguarding, pastoral care evolution and generally forward-thinking practices to such a degree that really the question today is not “is your child a boarder?”, it is “which boarding school will suit them best?”. Boarding houses these days look more homely than most actual homes, certainly if Channel 4’s Grand Designs is a signifier of interior design trends. The questions one might have asked in the 90s before sending Lily and Lazlo off to a leaking cold Hogwarts monster of a building (without the magic) are no longer relevant and there is much more to be gained from listening to these schools about how they deliver their boarding education and moreover going to see them and finding out for yourself.

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Which UK boarding school should I choose?

Below is a short list of tips on how to approach a boarding school experience, in choosing the school, preparing the family for the transition and finally how to get the most from what should be some of the best years of child’s education. Hopefully you will find some nuggets of info to benefit you and your child and how the whole family can learn to thrive during what should be a positive life-changing experience.

Relax… and do your research

I will write this more blatantly. You relax, you the parents. Yes, it’s stressful, you are sending away your little darling. But if you’re worried, I guarantee your child will be, if not right away then soon enough. From their point of view if you have reasons to worry then they definitely should as well.

It goes without saying but really do your homework here. Turn up, both parents if possible. Boarding prep schools will focus much more on the boarding side of matters as your children really are children at that age and need more TLC and general kindness. The more you believe the Houseparent/master/mistress are expertly positioned to care for your baba the more that your child will build up their confidence as they prepare to join.

Re-visit your chosen boarding school with your child

Re-visit – time is expensive for us all but if possible I would visit potential boarding schools for my children alone initially, as in parents only. You don’t want your child to fall in love with somewhere you loathe and would never allow them to attend for whatever reason. But also taking your children to visit schools that you’ve pre-chosen will let them see that you are excited about them and they will hopefully appreciate that you have done some major heavy lifting prior to involving them.

Find out if you can choose a house preference

House choices – not all schools offer a choice or even an opportunity to state your house preferences. Those that do typically make time for you to see a clutch of houses on a visit before committing to your preferred options. Depending on the school, the differences can be quite marked from house to house. Again, do your homework, ask around, then turn up and meet the house leadership team and make your decision from there. You can ask children of friends who are already boarding what houses are good at their school. However, without having to meet these imaginary pupils I can tell you their answer will be “my house is the best”.

Talking to your child about boarding school

Talk it up – if you have to oversell boarding to your children then it’s probably not the time to make the move for them. But if they are old enough to be part of the convo from the outset then they should be. If you are considering boarding from as young as eight years old then once you have made the decision do speak positively about the new school. Equally, don’t overdo it, your child should not see the move as the be all and end all but they should head off tuck box in Volvo, excited and upbeat.

How to prepare for boarding school

Dial down the fuss

Once Titus and Ophelia have got into their chosen public school or boarding prep, do your best to keep the totally normal fuss/excitement/hysteria down to a minimum. Don’t be overheard by the little angels talking endlessly to your other half, friends, family members and whoever else might begrudgingly listen. Again it will create unnecessary expectation and pressure for your child. They will want to focus on settling in, making friends and for the teenagers amongst them they will want ownership of their experience. You are doing this for them so they should feel that to be the case. Nice of you to pay for it and all but ultimately it’s their party, not yours.

Pause on the tutoring

The summer before your child joins a boarding school should be work-free, totally, perhaps not for you but certainly for them. I say this as a one time professional tutor and co-owner of a very well established tutoring company. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing lots of interesting things, just that none of them should involve formal teaching or desks. They should arrive at their boarding school in what we Brits are still referring to as an ‘Indian Summer’ despite the fact we haven’t had one since Tony and Gordon were in charge, energised and keen to learn.

Prepare yourselves

My Mum will hate this bit, and yes she reads everything her little darling writes to this day. I prepared myself to board. I had much older siblings who had explained I would have the best time imaginable. So I packed my own trunk and waited by the door until Mother dearest had calmed the tears down a touch and Dad had found the necessary audiobook so none of us would have to talk in the car on the way there. Mum was prepared in fact, I was child number three to board and she has been in education her whole career. But it was Mum turning round in the car all the way to my new boys tea party saying if i didn’t like it I could come home and go to St Paul’s.

This was before the days of psychometric testing when they would have told Mrs Petty when I was aged ten that she should look elsewhere for someone to accept my tiny mind. Her greatest fear was realised – I didn’t like boarding, I loved it and failed to call home for about a month at the beginning. A fact she reminds me of bitterly to this day as if I physically attacked her. In fact, she complained about this very fact to her grandchildren over lunch this Sunday just gone.

Prepare to enjoy it all

This isn’t about you, you see. I have written this already. However, there is much for you to enjoy alongside your child’s experience. The school will send you endless bumph and propaganda before you finally leave your child at their feet that September evening. Read it please, again treat it with balance, most kids will expect to be the expert on their own school, not you. But knowing a little more about what they can get up to and how life at school will be, should give you all more to talk about and help you understand them better when they are home on exeat. This will likely aid in translating the incessant grunting teenagers seem to mistake for communication.

How to cope when your child is at boarding school

Leave them be (a bit)

Starting boarding should be thrilling for your child and depending on their age when they join, try not to overwhelm them with communiques in the opening days and weeks. The school and your Houseparent/master/mistress will have given you clear advice on when to get in touch. Listen to them, they have years of experience and generally know exactly what they are doing and what is best for the children under their care. Constant reminders of home can stall the settling-in process. Homesickness to some degree is inevitable, do not fall into the trap of making any rash decisions should the start be rockier than you had originally imagined.

Participate in boarding school life

even totally full-boarding schools want their parents to get involved in school life wherever possible and appropriate. Make time to journey up during the working week to see a play of an evening or a match on the weekend. Not just to things that your child is directly involved in but also to other events you might be interested in that you can enjoy together with your child as a fellow spectator. Ironically I rather think parents of boarding children are offered more opportunities to be involved than those of day school children.

Relax (again)

You have made an informed decision, you are highly likely to have got it right as the people who know your children best. Now let the school show you what they promised they would offer your children. If in the unlikely event something hasn’t worked out as predicted then change is not as difficult as the usual parent paranoia would leave you to believe.

For help on choosing a boarding or day school, visit The Independent Schools Show

Sending a child away from home to board is a big decision any which way you cut it but common sense, a little effort and some due diligence will help enormously. Before schlepping up and down every highway in the UK, come and see 200+ schools from around the country and London both boarding and day that will be exhibiting the Independent Schools Show in London this November. We will be there as ever and there are few places better to start your own education on the modern boarding school and all that it can offer.

The Independent Schools Show

WHEN: 13th – 14th November
WHERE: Battersea Evolution, London SW8 4NW
TICKETS: Advance tickets to The Independent Schools Show are free. 

The Independent Schools Show is BACK to help thousands of families plan and discover the next steps for their children. With 200+ exhibiting schools, 4 theatres, 40 talks and 100+ speakers, there is no better place for a parent to plan their child’s future.

Book tickets To The Independent Schools Show

The show brings together the sector’s leading schools, brightest thinkers and the most respected heads to help you make the right decisions for your child. With speakers ranging from the Senior Editor of the Good Schools Guide to the High Master of St Paul’s School, the amount of expertise on hand is astonishing. This is the greatest public-facing gathering of school leaders in the world.

Make sure you get your tickets to this year’s show to find out everything you need to know about independent education.

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