Why board at a country prep school?

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by Simon Hitchings , Head of Swanbourne House School
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As we see our children growing up, we all look back at our own childhood and compare it with the experience of the rising generation. The balance of the comparison may swing either way in our minds. The world has undoubtedly advanced for the better in so many respects. However, for many there is undoubtedly the sense that in the past there was more freedom, that now children lose the innocence of childhood more quickly, and the pressures of a technology-centred life are not healthy.

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Boarding prep schools offer the opportunity for childhood to last longer and for that childhood to be enhanced. Boarding schools provide an environment with excellent pastoral care and an extensive array of stimulating activities, where children’s time is carefully balanced between a clear routine and free time for them to manage for themselves. 

The experience of boarding involves many strands among which I believe boarding prep schools can rightly claim the following.

Learning to have fun Boarding is an essentially social activity. Children who board learn that making friends with those with whom they share dormitories, common rooms, three meals a day, and so much else, is a vital skill to acquire. Most boarding schools regulate screen time during boarders’ free time and at prep schools in particular devices are looked after by boarding staff apart from at specified times. The emphasis is on using the beautiful setting of the school, engaging in dramatic, sporting, musical and many other activities. In the common rooms in the evenings and at weekends pupils talk and play games together rather than being lost in the electronic world of their own devices. Board games, puzzles and books are the staple of prep school common room shelves (as well as the Xbox or similar which pupils have to share).

Boarding prep schools offer a variety of styles – full, weekly and flexi-boarding

Learning independence Boarding pupils quickly learn it is their responsibility to do things for themselves. A child with the ability to be independent in many areas of life is a child who is getting ready for adulthood. As a parent I know how easy it is to sort out my young children’s lives with the result of a short-term solution but the risk of a longer-term bad habit. Boarding houses are necessarily places where there must be a routine – from time into the house through to lights out, or at the weekend when free time is interspersed with coordinated activities. Boarders are expected to organise themselves and their possessions according to the schedule, including handing in clothes for laundry, keeping their area of the dormitory in good order and making sure they know where to find their things. Boarders also learn the value of doing their homework independently – they are learning to think for themselves and to manage situations where they find work challenging by initiating conversations with teachers. As exams approach, the ability to decide to use free time for work is fostered in an environment where independence is valued.

Learning to lead responsibly All schools create opportunities for pupils to take on responsibilities in the school environment. The last year at a 13+ prep school, when pupils are of an age to understand what this entails, is a wonderful time to give them genuine opportunities to lead across school life. This can manifest itself especially in the boarding house. Younger pupils benefit from the example of senior pupils in following routines and the guidance of an experienced boarder can be invaluable at the start of a boarders’ time in the house. 

Learning for the future Education is all about preparation for what is to come. This is true at the immediate level of preparation for the next school as well as on the grand scale of acquiring skills which will last for a lifetime. The smaller context of a boarding prep school in which everyone knows everyone else and the sense of community is omnipresent is the ideal place to learn how to board. From here the step to a larger senior school becomes less daunting and merely the transfer of skills from one scale to another. Prep school boarding houses are often – and correctly – described as a more intimate and homely environment. In this supportive environment the more demanding themes of independence and leadership can be learned in readiness for the next stage.

Boarding prep schools offer a variety of styles – full, weekly and flexi-boarding. Each of these can support the ideas and the vision set out above, and each child and family can ask which style suits them and their needs at the present moment. Whatever the style, there is no doubt in my mind that the best prep boarding schools offer an enhancement of childhood as well as a great preparation for what lies ahead.

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