Boarding Life - in their own words
Many tales have contributed to the creation of stereotypes and continue today to give a distorted image of boarding schools - some people still think of them as institutions akin to Tom Brown’s School Days! To separate myths from reality, Christ College, Brecon, asked its pupils, parents and past pupils 'Old Breconians' to speak from experience.
“Boarding schools are a parent-free zone”
The most common misconception around boarding school is that parents and children lose their unique bond because of imposed distance. In reality, thanks to modern devices and flexible school policies, boarders communicate with their families as often as they like.
Nader Rameneshi, former Christ College pupil and parent of three children at the school, explains: “There are of course the normal issues of growing children and their changing habits regarding communication with their parents. This hasn’t changed and our three are no exception, but the advent of so much new communications technology and the prevalence of mobile phones has totally changed the communications dynamic and issues of separation.
“The school very sensibly has some controls in place for the use of mobile phones, but we are able to contact all of our children, as well as staff and teachers, very easily – through the phone, instant messaging, emails and social media. We have a family group chat in place and it’s not unheard of for us to have an ongoing conversation (including photos) throughout the day.
“Ironically, we probably have more meaningful communications and more fun interactions with the children than we might do if they were at home, just hiding in their bedrooms. As it is, they are able to come home every weekend if they wish.”
Upper Sixth-Form pupil Harry Roberts, who has been a boarder at Christ College for three years, said: “the biggest myth is certainly the lack of flexibility. In reality, it is our own choice to go home for the week-end or not. I don’t always make the choice to go home anymore, but when I was younger it was important for me to know I had the choice if I needed to.”
As several parents pointed out, sports fixtures and many other events organised at the school also give parents the opportunity to see their children regularly.
Another misconception that persists is that by paying fees for the education of their child, parents are shirking their responsibilities.
Anna Allen, from Pembrokeshire, regretted the absence of educational opportunity at home, and was seeking a way of ensuring improved results for her daughter, who joined Christ College in Sixth Form.
She said: “When learning that we were sending our daughter to boarding school, responses from other parents at home have ranged from jealousy to accusations of heartlessness on our part, causing undue stress to our children, shirking our responsibilities or wasting our money.
“But I knew this was not the case, as I attended a school of similar set up, and Christ College was a far warmer, personal and friendlier environment than any other school I have visited.”
Nader Rameneshi explained: “The nature of my work has meant that we have moved around quite a lot as a family, usually every couple of years and often overseas. As the children grew older, we wanted to ensure a more stable and consistent environment for them, to minimise the stress for them if circumstances or work location change for me.
“All our children live in a boarding house and have assigned ‘house parents’ who are the immediate, go to people for us and them for any day to day issues. This provides an immediate level of confidence and a safety net for them in terms of their pastoral care and any general notifications. They also have an academic tutor who is there to keep an eye on their school work progress. There are half-termly academic reports as well as periodic parent/teacher evenings.
“That notwithstanding, the only people responsible for looking after the interests of your child is you. Paying to send your child to boarding school is about paying for opportunity, it’s not about paying for a guaranteed education as if one was buying a defined product off the shelf in a shop.”
From “Sink or Swim” to “Home from Home”
When asked why they sent their children to boarding school, parents evoked not only competitive academic teaching and high achievement standards, but also a supportive, friendly environment for their offspring to flourish as young adults – diametrically opposed to the stereotype of children left to flounder on their own.
Nader Rameneshi said: “Of course, there is a lot of change associated with going to school away from home, so it is important to do an honest appreciation of your circumstances before making this kind of choice, but it can definitely be an enhancement to what’s on offer to them at home.”
All pupils interviewed said that “making friends for life” was one of the main perks of attending boarding school, and that everything was made for them to feel at home.
Immy Philips, a flexi-boarder in Year 10, said: “I go home for athletics training twice a week, but I feel very at home in school - it’s like having 60 sisters almost all of which you can talk to about anything!”
Cerys Jones, a full-boarder since Year 7, added: “All of the House-Parents and tutors are great, they always help me with any problem, in a sense they’re like my second parents. Girls in the boarding house are all in the same boat, being away from home can be a daunting thought but it is made so much better when you’re in a school like Christ College, as we’re all so close and share many interests.”
Pupils also explained how they were able to reproduce a homley atmosphere. Poppy Lawley, in Sixth Form, started boarding when she was 8 and joined Christ College in Year 9.
She said: “The biggest contribution to the feeling of comfort, ease and belonging is the people in the house who live alongside me. There is a communal effort to ensure that everyone feels at home in their living space in as many ways as possible.
“Enhancing this, we are encouraged to personalise our rooms or living spaces with photos, lights, cushions and posters. Decorating my room has become a crucial part of making me feel settled at the beginning of each term, especially as a Sixth Former in my own room.”
Heledd Evans, also in Sixth Form, added: “When there are special occasions important to us, everybody celebrates it – for instance we all have cake for a birthday, or a Chinese take away for Chinese New Year. On Saturday nights, we sometimes have movie nights, where we choose a film, and watch it together in our pyjamas with our duvets.”
Interestingly, while some pupils like Leo Wong, in Year 13, say school is “indistinguishable” from home; other pupils like Harry Roberts or Lilya Rameshni, prefer to separate being at home to being at school.
Harry commented: “I think it’s important for me to separate being at home to being at school, so I would say that I consciously try not to make my experience at school and home too similar; however, that's not to say I don’t enjoy the environment that comes within the boarding house, and, to much upset of my mother, I have been caught calling school home many a time.”
Either way, pupils have the liberty to choose what suits their personality best.
“The staff and teachers impose draconian rules”
Far from the popular belief that boarding schools are ruled by merciless housemasters, pupils at Christ College said they enjoy a good relationship with the staff and understand the reason behind certain inevitable rules.
Leo said: “Obviously, teachers won’t let you do whatever you want. Time allowed out of the house is regulated, certain objects and substances are prohibited, but it is nowhere near as strict as illustrated in the Harry Potter book series.”
Heledd added: “From my personal experience of having attended both a state and private school, I definitely wouldn’t say boarding school is stricter. In fact, because people are generally more self-disciplined, there is less need for reinforcement of strict rules.
“I have also been pleasantly surprised by how modern and liberal the staff and pupils are in terms of their views, which makes us all feel comfortable voicing our opinions in confidence, knowing it will be heard and listen to. This would definitely not be something I would relate with a stereotypical place which fosters strict draconian practices.”
The structure in place, with help from teachers all around the clock, also helps pupils build a reliable work ethic.
Poppy explained: “There is a good structure established for balancing work time and time to relax, which is helpful for the younger years in the houses as it helps create good work habits before reaching the final years of your education here.”
Boarding schools are austere”
If Old Breconian Richard Whiting, who stayed at Christ College from 1949 to 1956, remembers feeling cold and the lack of food due to post-war rationing, times have changed. Modern boarding schools are about children widening their horizons, learning and exploring.
All parents interviewed evoked the desire to see their children have fun and be happy in school while developing necessary skills for the future, building exceptional friendships within a strong community and having a wide range of activities to choose from.
Pupils at Christ College described their typical week as “busy”, “varied”, “enjoyable and worthwhile”. They usually wake up between 7am and 7:30am, make their breakfast, and meet for Chapel before lessons start. When they finish, allocated study periods within their timetable helps them to stay on top of their work.
This organisation enables pupils to take part in a wide range of extra-curricular activities later in the afternoon. The children interviewed were involved in various sports including rugby, football, hockey, athletics, cricket and netball , but also in speech, drama and music lessons, in the Chapel choir, in volunteering activities or in preparing for the Duke of Edinburgh awards.
In addition to exploring their own aspirations, pupils in boarding school get the opportunity to mix with children from all over the world.
Lilya Rameshni said: “Attending a boarding school allows children to make friends with people who are from completely different countries and backgrounds. Living together and being around each other can lead to the creation of many very strong friendships.”
Former pupil Matthew Thomas, who was a boarder at Christ College from 1991 to 1996, said: “My close friends from my time in Brecon are now my great friends. We are spread out all over the world, but the shared experience of our time at the school means that whenever we see each other, we are back in Brecon in the 1990s.
“Although the specific skills of polishing shoes until you can see your face in them and throwing a cricket ball left-handed are life skills I will never lose, the real value of boarding at Brecon is found in the bigger picture.
“Your teenage years are formative ones and there is no doubt that my time in Brecon shaped who I became at University and beyond. Confidence, motivation, resilience, leadership, ability to work as part of a team – skills I use every day and skills that were all formed or shaped in the dormitories, class rooms and sports fields of Christ College.”