How boarding schools support children’s mental and emotional development

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by Fred de Falbe, Headmaster of Beeston Hall
Bestow Hall school

In an assembled group at school, it is an obvious and easy question to ask – what do we value most highly in life? For some the first answer may be God, but more commonly – certainly among prep school age children – it is ‘family’, or ‘love’. (Occasionally ‘time’ is offered up too, but more usually by old stagers in Year 8 who have been in on this discussion before.)

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The point is that these three abstract nouns are the keys to our capacity to form and maintain relationships in life which, in turn, leads to that Holy Grail – happiness. This is not to say life, particularly the life of a child, should be unalloyed happiness, but it is a notion that merits unpicking within the discussion about boarding school. 

Happiness? Rather than heading down this ‘rabbit hole’ of philosophical discussion, we should consider the end game: what are parents and pupils aiming for when they choose UK independent education – known and admired around the world as a gold standard? We want our charges to become well-educated, but what does that mean? Besides the fulfilling of academic potential, we aspire for the children we look after to become open-minded, energetic and flexible young people, willing and able to work in groups and to think creatively and independently so they have the confidence to take initiative and contribute in purposeful and constructive ways. This process starts in the home with parental instincts driving the development of our children but before too long – and quite correctly as children begin socialisation and stimulation – we seek help elsewhere. 

So begins school and the wider development of our children and the challenges of parenting. One irony of our privileged, post-industrial society twenty-first century lives is the lack of time juxtaposed with the sheer quantity of information, both fanned by the distractions and diversions that can enfold our relentless schedules. Titles such as The Collapse of Parenting and Raising Boys offer analysis and advice but do not stop the guilt, interspersed though it is with natty new methods of ‘having everything’. On top of this comes the consequent inability to construct communities of a sufficiently small and digestible scale to allow children to develop the social and emotional intelligences so necessary to fulfil the aims outlined above. 

So we come to boarding school. A small boarding community does not replace family. But it does begin to reflect the ‘village’ or ‘tribe’ model outlined by so many social psychologists, something which has served humanity well for millennia and all but disappeared in today’s developed world. Prefaced by the adage ‘not for everyone’, we begin the observation that children, in many cases at Beeston Hall, often choose this for themselves. They see the structures and efficiencies – never mind fun – of such an arrangement, where their time is more purposefully spent, mixing up activities and play with academic progress. 

There is no wasted travel time, no environmental footprint, but a rhythm to the children’s lives and friendships which is understandable and not shot through with the demands of adults’ preoccupations. There is the hierarchy and discipline of systems (but none of the oppression of ancient stereotypes) within which children can begin making their own, unilateral but supported choices – something, as we adults know, is often a challenge.  

While the care of each child is paramount and pastoral systems unimpeachable, our boarding schools are organised to serve a community, not the individual needs of each child. This salient point has a powerful effect on each child’s capacity to operate in a group and share, developing the resilience to stand up for themselves, contribute and be noticed. There is the freedom to make decisions and to learn the consequences of this – whether it is falling off a swing or resolutely practising the French horn – and this means the 13 year old departing for senior school has developed some awareness of their own thought processes and the impact they can have.

In my view, the effect of this contained, curated life of a small prep school helps achieve a remarkable combination of humility and self-confidence, where children can gently but firmly make their ways in the world. This is why they are greeted with open arms by the senior schools themselves and also, of course, by parents who, rather than serving them as taxi driver, coach and tutor (chief nag very often, too), delight in seeing their children flourishing into young adults who have learnt the benefit of good relationships, of making an effort, and of contributing to the world around them.

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