If starting a new school can seem daunting, throw boarding into the mix and students are facing a double challenge, leaving them, it might seem, with nowhere to hide when the going gets tough.In fact, one of the reasons people used to pack their children off to boarding school was precisely to toughen them up; a sort of baptism by fire, that would prepare them for the adult world.
Who hasn’t heard of Flashman, the school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a novel and TV series about one boy’s experiences at the famous UK public school, Rugby?Britain’s elite public schools, such as Eton and Gordonstoun, where Prince Charles reportedly wrestled with conditions outside his comfort zone, are still a source of fascination today.What really happens in these institutions that become a child’s substitute home for a large part of the year? Are they still filled with modern-day Flashmans taking dubious pleasure in making other pupils’ lives miserable? Or do they positively broaden a student’s educational experience?
King’s College has two boarding blocks – one at King’s College Saint Michaels in the UK and the other at King’s College Madrid, which goes by the name of Tenbury House. King’s blog talked to three students at Tenbury House – Han, 18, Lia, 17, and Sophie, 17 – and discovered how boarding, at least within King’s, has been revolutionised in recent years.
According to them, instead of fierce unsympathetic house masters and mistresses, they encounter a rotating team of eight house parents and homely matrons who tend to the needs of around 50 boarders from 10 different countries.They didn’t have to face the Dickensian rules and punishments that added an element of terror to the experience in days gone by. In its place, they came across a pyramid of penalties and rewards, with punishments confined to groundings, and rewards including a pizza delivered to your room! Small enough to nurture a family feel, Tenbury House thrives on consideration, empathy and mutual support, like any other healthy family or community.
Making the boarders feel at home is a priority for the Head of Tenbury, Hanan Nazha. “We want to do things parents might do when the children are at home,” she explains. “Food, of course, is a huge part of this. For example, we have a student from Thailand so the cook is looking up Thai recipes. We also make sure we celebrate Eid or Orthodox Christian Christmas, which come a little later and Jewish holidays so that children from these cultures don’t miss out. We are the United Nations of the school.”
It sounds like an essential experience but would every child benefit from it? Han, Lia and Sophie all agree that the time has to feel right to the student. “I think parents sending their children away too young can be damaging but if students seek out the experience themselves then it can be one of the best things they ever do,” says Lia, Head of House who left her family in the UK last year. “But it’s not just about age. When I left home, I was ready to go. I wanted to get out and explore. You have to be quite adventurous.”
When Han arrived at Tenbury aged 15, he was seeking an alternative to the Chinese education system. He spoke no English or Spanish but was attracted by the total immersion he would have in both which would give him a handle on the world’s three most widely spoken languages. “I looked at a number of schools,” he says. “And this was the friendliest. Even though I couldn’t say anything, the staff were always smiling at me!”
Meanwhile, according to Sian Thomas, Head of Student Recruitment at Saint Michael’s, “The students that adapt quickest to boarding life are the ones keen to make new friends, open to new experiences and those that relish the independence and excitement boarding life can bring.”
So do the Tenbury trio miss home? At all? “I obviously miss my parents,” says Sophie, who is Korean-born with strong ties to Australia. “But we have house parents so that helps.”Han adds that he actually gets on better with his parents since living away. He does, however, still miss Chinese food though he says the cook has been doing several courses on international cuisine recently.
And while Lia admits there are elements of British culture she misses, such as the people, she does say, “You make very close friendships when boarding and the community is strong because we share so much common ground. The day pupils feel sorry for us at first but they’re curious and they end up envying us because of the bond that exists between us.”
Despite the fact she arrived mid-term, Sophie explains that she felt at home in Tenbury House in no time. “I adapted really fast to the boarding house,” she says. “The other boarders took me out and taught me everything.”Sian Tomas adds, “As an international community of 36 nationalities, the 97 students at Saint Michaels often find it relatively easy to settle in because all students are in the same position, getting used to life in the UK away from their home countries; this makes them keen to interact, make new friendship groups and support systems.”
Now as Head Prefect, and Heads of House, it’s Sophie, Lia and Han who are able to ensure newcomers always feel welcome. “All the boarders here are very confident, kind and adventurous and because that’s the atmosphere, there’s a snowball effect as newcomers adapt to the community,” says Lia. “It’s a great place for nurturing empathy.”