Beyond Hogwarts: the real-life benefits of boarding

Extended family … Cranbrook School offers boarders excellent pastoral care in a supportive environment.

If you didn’t attend a boarding school yourself, your impressions of residential schools have probably been formed, at least in part, by Hollywood.

It seems that every decade produces an era-defining tale set in a boarding school. From the 60s counter-culture touchstone, If, to Australia’s own haunting 70s classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society in the 80s, and, of course, the Harry Potter blockbusters of recent times, there is no shortage of movies that centre on the intrigue and exhilaration of adolescent communal living.

Reality is usually a little more mundane than the big screen version but that hasn’t slowed the resurgence of Australia’s boarding schools.

Boarding is well and truly back in vogue with more than 25,000 students nation-wide choosing to live at their school — an increase of 25 per cent over the last decade.

Many of these students come from rural and regional areas where boarding is often a necessity but changing family dynamics are seeing more city-based and international students opting to board.

In families where both parents work full-time, the close supervision and access to extracurricular activities that boarding provides makes it an attractive option. In the senior years, students are increasingly choosing to board so they can concentrate on their studies free of the distractions of home and the time-drain of commuting.

Living at school offers students many unique advantages including:

Academic support and extra tuition
When you live at school a teacher is never very far away to lend a hand with a sticky problem or read through a draft essay. Allocated study periods ensure that students have adequate time in their days to get through their homework and no excuses for not doing it.

A structured environment
Boarding is characterised by routine and stability. Students learn good habits early on and for busy parents working long hours, the inbuilt structure of boarding environments is a boon. At schools such as The King’s School in Parramatta, fully a quarter of boarders are Sydney-based; boarding not out of need but because their parents want them to benefit from the “boarding experience”, the school says.

Extracurricular opportunities
Living at school means never missing footy practice again. Even better, it allows students to participate in everything on offer and try new sports and activities. Most boarding schools emphasise physical activity to help promote resilience and teamwork and keep their students fit and healthy, but creative and intellectual opportunities abound. Meanwhile, regular excursions, entertainment and social events keep students busy and engaged with life outside of school. Boarding is rarely boring.

Self-reliance
By its nature, boarding promotes independence and self-management; skills that prove useful throughout a lifetime.

“Boarders develop resilience and independence at an earlier age,” says Wenona principal, Dr Briony Scott. “It’s not that they grow up quicker but they definitely do become more independent.

“Boarders learn to look after themselves really well. They learn to look after their things and take responsibility for their time.”

Kate Obermayer, a Cochlear executive and former Wenona boarder agrees, telling the Weekly Times: “Boarding gave me an inner dependence on myself, which continues to help me on a daily basis in my role — no one is cracking the whip except me.

“I have to be proactive. I have to think about all angles. I have to be organised. I learnt all of that at boarding school.”

Lifelong friendships
Close-quarters living promotes tight bonds between students that often carry through their whole lives. Schools with a significant international boarding cohort like Cranbrook in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs offer students the opportunity to make “friends from all corners of the globe”, the school says.

This view is supported by research conducted by the University of Adelaide. A 2004 survey of boarding school students revealed that the overwhelming majority of respondents had formed “intense, enduring” friendships at boarding school with fellow students from around the world. The report author concluded that for these students boarding “was a significant factor in fostering independence and embracing cultural diversity”, which helped to “prepare them for life in an increasingly global world”.

Overall, the respondents viewed boarding with fondness and appreciation. As one survey respondent wrote: “For all Grammar’s faults, I wouldn’t exchange this experience for anything in the world!”

Hogwarts may be a fantasy but it seems that, for many students, boarding does, in fact, add a touch of magic to school life.

References:

Boarding schools appealing to the city as much as the country — Emily Parkinson, Australian Financial Review, May 6, 2016
http://www.afr.com/news/special-reports/boarding-schools-appealing-to-the-city-as-much-as-the-country-20160503-golmnt

Wenona alumnae explain how boarding at the North Sydney school has shaped their lives — Weekly Times, November 1, 2016
http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/country-living/education/secondary/wenona-alumnae-explain-how-boarding-at-the-north-sydney-school-has-shaped-their-lives/news-story/760604de5f5f2811d3e8a98a739c3753?nk=71c909cf3ea5cdff59e0c34f1859f415-1495110031

An Australian co-educational boarding school as a crucible for life: a humanistic sociological study of students’ attitudes from their own memoirs — Matthew A White, PhD Thesis, School of Education, University of Adelaide, 2004
https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/37957/8/02whole.pdf

Wenona: where girls grow into Renaissance women

“I have 49 sisters whom I love and I’ve developed unique relationships with each of them,” says Lily Collins, a Year 12 student at Wenona on Sydney’s Lower North Shore.

Lily arrived at Wenona from Scone in the Upper Hunter Valley two years ago. Close quarters living came as a shock at first, she says: “I felt like I was constantly stimulated with people always around and after my first term in boarding I was exhausted.”

But as strangers became friends, Lily came to realise that she loves

Renaissance women … Wenona Year 12 students Charlotte Doughty and Lily Collins.

communal living. Being surrounded by girls who know and care for her is a great source of support and the best aspect of boarding is that “there is always someone to talk to when you’re feeling a bit sad.”

With new friends, come new experiences. Getting to know her extended boarding family has been eye-opening, Lily says.

“Hearing their life stories and perspectives really challenged my initial way of thinking when I started at Wenona and helped me grow as an individual.”

Flourishing through friendship is a common theme at Wenona with fellow Year 12 student Charlotte Doughty reporting a similar experience.

A day girl since Year 5, Charlotte says she was immediately won over by Wenona’s special spirit.

“From the first day I started, I fell in love with the school and the girls,” she says. “There’s something within our community, which I believe is really quite unique, that has really influenced me.”

Charlotte says Wenona has made her a more “positive and spirited” person thanks to the wonderful relationships she’s formed there and the school community’s exuberant compassion.

“A couple of years ago when Dr Scott had a health scare, our entire school came together to make a music video for one of her favourite songs and theme from the previous year, Brave. Everything else seemed insignificant, while we all banded together to sing for our principal to express our love and hope for her.”

Both girls nominate the school’s Renaissance Studies class as their favourite subject. Developed to encourage critical thinking, the course sees students consider a range of ethical, political and religious matters as they pertain to contemporary life.

Thinking deeply about global issues and questioning their own beliefs is surprisingly exhilarating, the girls find. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to engage with life beyond school in a situation where we are treated and challenged as adults,” Charlotte says.

Studying different belief systems is fascinating, Lily says, and considering one’s own problems in a global context, helps to “put your stress or fears in perspective”.

Wenona’s focus on the bigger picture is seen throughout the school, Lily says. From teachers urging students to read newspapers on a daily basis to the varied backgrounds of her fellow boarders, “everything contributed to my increasing awareness of the world around me and now I love to know what is playing out on the world stage, actively making myself aware of global events so I can engage with the other girls on a different level than just social conversations,” she says.

Next year, Lily is looking forward to studying a Bachelor of Science degree while Charlotte thinks she may take a gap year to travel and do volunteer work overseas. On her return, she hopes to study Economics or International Relations at university with the ultimate goal of working toward the betterment of society.

“I’ve always been interested in International Relations,” Charlotte says. “I believe it could lead me into a place that I find interesting and where I can make a meaningful contribution through my work.”

Spoken like a true Renaissance woman.

Independent schools offer support for busy parents

At The King’s School in Parramatta, an after-hours program that sees boys staying at school as late as 9pm every evening is proving increasingly popular with parents and students alike.

As part of the school’s “flexible boarding” policy, the Extended Day program offers relief to busy parents by allowing day boys access to boarding facilities after school.

In this safe, supervised environment, students can pursue extra-curricular activities, play sport and get their homework done with the help of overseer teachers. They even have access to shower facilities. With the day’s work accomplished and afternoon tea and a hot dinner provided, the boys are relaxed and well-fed by the time parents collect them in the early evening.

Commuting difficulties on top of long working hours can be very stressful for parents trying to fit everything into overloaded days, particularly when both are working full-time. Flexibility around school pick-up times is a welcome perk for King’s School families. Student participation in the Extended Day program has doubled since its introduction.

King’s School headmaster Dr Timothy Hawkes told the Sydney Morning Herald that growing demand for the program is due to the changing nature of family life.

“The boundaries between that which traditionally operated at home and that which traditionally operated at school are now being dissolved,” Dr Hawkes said.

“Most parents are in a dual income situation. Many might be asset rich, but they are time poor – we can help out in that regard.”

The upside for the boys, said Dr Hawkes, is the opportunity to access extra academic support while developing life skills and independence.

While extensive after-hours supervision of students, especially at the high school level, is still a rarity in Sydney, Kincoppal-Rose Bay, The Scots College in Bellevue Hill and St Joseph’s College at Hunters Hill run similar programs to that at The King’s School.

Another solution for overstretched parents is weekly or casual boarding. Many of Sydney’s boarding schools offer casual and short-stay accommodation to day students.

For older students, occasional boarding offers a number of advantages. It can help them focus harder on their studies free of the distractions of home, allow them to participate more easily in early morning and late evening extra-curricular activities, and help them forge a deeper bond with their fellow students.

Indeed, the demand for weekly boarding is driving a resurgence in boarding numbers throughout the country.

As Australian Boarding Schools’ Association executive director Richard Stokes explained to the Australian Financial Review, the trend for city kids to board during the week is partially a response to the time pressure on families and but also recognition that commuting time can be better spent.

“One of the things that is contributing to more urban boarders is the fact that in our big cities – Melbourne and Sydney and, to a lesser extent, Brisbane – families are really struggling with travel. For a child actively involved in a school’s extra-curricular program, parents might question why their child might spend an hour or more on public transport, travelling to and from school when, in fact, they could live at the school and use that time wisely.”

For more information on out of school care and residential options, parents should contact their school registrar.

Read more:

The private schools where students aren’t picked up until 8pm – Cosima Marriner, Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2016
http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/there-until-8pm–the-new-school-day-20160122-gmc05s.html

Boarding schools appealing to the city as much as the country – Emily Parkinson, Australian Financial Review, May 6, 2016
http://www.afr.com/news/special-reports/boarding-schools-appealing-to-the-city-as-much-as-the-country-20160503-golmnt