Visit to the Independent Schools Show, London, 9 November 2013
One of the Directors of Boarding Concern attended this exhibition and filed this report:
A sound recording (46 minutes) of this talk is available to download as an MP3 file (43Mb). (If you hit a broken link or the file is missing, please contact Boarding Concern.)
Aware this event was taking place, I checked their website for any parts that might be relevant to the work of Boarding Concern.
I discovered that in their Education Theatre, they were holding a session from midday entitled Educating parents: boarding at Prep School.
Two Prep School Headmasters were planning on speaking about Prep School boarding: Tom Dawson (Headmaster of Sunningdale School) (who sounds like PM David Cameron!) and Benedict Dunhill (Headmaster of Port Regis Prep School).
Both schools position themselves to try to recruit full boarders, while the rest of the industry seems happy to provide weekly and flexi boarding.
Sunningdale in Berkshire has 110 pupils (boys only, 83 full boarders, 20 weekly boarder, 7 day boys). The school was the subject of a BBC television documentary, Britain’s Youngest Boarders, first broadcast in September 2010, and available on YouTube. The school claims to be a traditional boarding prep school, focusing on full time boarding, especially in the last two years.
Port Regis in Dorset has 410 pupils (mixed, 200 boarders). They encourage full boarding.
I arrived at the venue through the pouring rain. The Show seemed well attended as I made my way to the Theatre. The previous lecture session had just ended and was full as the attendees left.
I took up a strategic position where I could see the speakers but more importantly, the attendees.
As we approached start time, I estimated the session was only about 20% full. People left during the event but none arrived. I noticed badged school staff occupying several seats. The age profile of the attendees seemed higher than that for parents of prospective boarders of seven or eight.
Many of the parents sitting in the session did not seem to be English or traditional boarding families (TBF). I suspect that TBFs would not need to attend an event like this as they will select schools using their more traditional means. Most of the parents attending looked aspirant, the “Nervous New Money” type as the boarding school industry identifies them.
The host of the event was a well-dressed woman in navy jersey and pearls. Her voice was strident as she introduced the event, demanding we stay and hear that modern boarding “is not the boarding you may have once read about”. (She reminded me of the letter-writing school mistress in the BBC documentary The Making of Them.)
She introduced the two Heads. They explained the format of the event would be a question and answer session between them, with the audience invited to ask questions “on demand”.
The two Heads explained how homework “prep” can be a challenge for tired, working parents. This was where boarding schools had the advantage. This is a well-worn argument but didn’t trigger any response from the audience.
Modern boarding from age seven got a mention. This shocked some members of the audience.
At 14:00, there is talk of “emotional development” about being cooped up with other boys 24/7.
At 14:30 reference to boarders being “stunted emotionally” by going to a boarding school is “completely wrong.” “Hard pressed parents at home find life difficult with their children.” However neither of the two Heads successfully countered the arguments put forward by Nick Duffell, Professor Joy Schaverien and Boarding Recovery. They swiftly moved on to academic matters. I got a sense that parents were seeking a better answer to this major issue.
At 23:50, there is a question for Tom Dawson about “free time.” This was about keeping children busy and structuring it for the younger children. Tom quotes his “housemaster” in the past saying “if you are bored at this school, you are a boring person!” “And he was absolutely right as there was so much to do…”
At 26:55 there is a slight delay as the two Heads and the host discuss (off microphone), whether to keep going or switch to taking questions from the audience. No questions are forthcoming so they continue with their own questions.
Benedict stressed the benefit of his safe, rural location against passing drug pushers and other degenerates on the streets of London. Tom talked about roasting chestnuts and recognising quince trees.
At 30:00, Benedict asked Tom about homesickness “which can happen”. Tom says “it can and does.” The answer is to keep them busy. The parents present seemed not to think this was a modern answer.
At 34:00, the questions and answers session from the audience starts. Some parents and families left the session at this point.
First question was from a female former boarder with twins, sitting in the front row. Her observation was about missing experiences with her children as they grow up. This worries her and she then asked about recommended age for boarding. The Heads answers did not satisfy her. On ages, one Head made reference to the Chinese news story about 3-year olds at boarding kindergartens. This seemed too early! Depends on the family, his school starts at seven… (She spoke with the Heads briefly after the session ended.)
The next question from a mother at 37:42 was about emotional development and the presence of parents in their child’s life. Children going on to boarding senior schools must boarder at their Prep School. Pupils “convert” to wanting to board around 11 and then pester their parents.
The final question at 40:30 was about modern boarding from a male former boarder. He described boarding schools as institutions. What advice would you give to parents who lived abroad? Heads said the issue was “do schools empty out at weekends?”
The host then wrapped up the session by inviting attendees to have follow-up questions and discussions with these two Heads. They should also visit the stands of the other schools.
I felt the session was a tough call for the two Heads. It was not well attended and the parents present (from their body language and questions) seemed ambivalent about early boarding. This event seems more likely to attract both UK aspirant and international parents, rather than the traditional UK boarding parent.
When I left the exhibition, the rain had stopped. I don’t know if the weather might have had an impact on attendance. It seemed not, as those who wanted to hear the various lectures would have timed their arrival regardless.