Come and Board

04 Oct 2016

Boarding is not a particularly well established educational concept in Malaysia, at least insofar as the term reflects the British style of boarding, epitomised by Epsom College in Malaysia. To be sure, there is a tradition of Malaysian children being sent to board in the UK, indeed the inspiration behind Epsom College in Malaysia, Tony Fernandes, was himself a boarder at Epsom College in the UK.

So what are the attractions and benefits of boarding? Parents may quite understandably ask why pay the additional cost of boarding, on top of the already expensive tuition fees charged by international schools. Certainly there exist many day schools which can offer a great education in terms of academic results, whether at A Level, IB or other curricula. To answer the question one needs to dig much deeper into what is meant by the word ‘education’.

Albert Einstein said “Education is what is left when one forgets all that was learned in the classroom”. Winston Churchill, reflecting on his own experience, said “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education”. Herein lies an essential truth which seems to have been forgotten in the endless drive for statistically demonstrable excellence, namely that the words ‘school’ and ‘education’ are not synonymous. Many, perhaps most, of the enriching and transformational experiences at school occur not in the classroom, but in the interactions with other people, with books and ideas, with music, poetry and art, with sport and recreation. Ask yourself what you remember from school, and I mean truly remember, in vivid colour, not hazy monochrome. I would be surprised if it is a trigonometry lesson, declining the Latin word for table (mensa) or reciting the names of all the Kings and Queens of England, in chronological order. My own history teacher at school was one of the most inspiring influences on my life, and yet I can recall vividly only two A Level history lessons. The first was one in which a fellow pupil fell asleep and the teacher quietly ushered us out, brought a different class in and began to teach a different topic, such that when our colleague awoke he was surrounded by a new class learning something completely unfamiliar. The second was when he told us a story of the Swedish King, Gustavus Adolphus, “sweeping majestically” through Northern Europe with his army in the seventeenth century - and Gustavus Adolphus was not even on the A Level syllabus! The point is that we learned the importance of humour and fun, of human interaction and of learning for its own sake.

This is where boarding is so powerful. Pupils spend time with one another, with caring and experienced staff, and with pupils both older and younger. They learn to communicate and to listen, they learn to problem solve and to think critically. They develop emotional intelligence and compassion, resilience and confidence. There is humour, laughter, joy, anticipation, support and care. There is also tension, unease, anxiety, tears and uncertainty. But before you say, “I told you so, boarding is wrong”, think about life itself. Surely all these latter emotions and obstacles are as much a part of our world as the former, and it is our responsibility to help students recognise, understand and manage the hard times as well as the good. This is as it should be.

Parents often feel their own anxieties about boarding. This is understandable, especially if they have no previous experience. “I am a bad parent for putting my child in boarding”, “what if my child hates it and I am miles away”, “no-one can care for my child as well as me”, “what if they are ill”. Normal questions and uncertainties. You will also feel this when they go to university, when they get their first job when they get married. It is called “being as parent”! My mother, at 85, still worries about me and gets cross when I forget to ring her. I would simply say that most of the boarding staff are also parents. We understand what being a parent means and we will always look after the children as if they were our own. The supportive word, the shoulder to cry on, the cup of hot chocolate at 2am are all on hand.

Children face huge pressures in life - social, physical, emotional, academic and mental. Often as parents, unwittingly, we compound these pressures, by openly worrying with our children. Worry for them! I recall a very wise Sergeant Major in the Army, who, spotting me running from the Officers’ Mess to my armoured vehicle during one of our periodic call outs, gently but firmly took my arm and said, “Don’t run sir, it panics the troops”! I have never forgotten this lesson - our children look to us for reassurance. If they are upset it will not help to see adults breaking down. In fact it will make things worse. So, boarding provides an environment where we can worry for the children, but without the intense emotional response which can affect us as parents.

Finally I would say to parents that boarding is great value for money. It may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that paying a higher fee will save you money, but let me recount a conversation I had with a father at a different school. He had come to see me to say that he could not afford the tuition fee for his son who was about to move into the Sixth Form. I asked him if he had ever considered boarding. The conversation unfolded along these lines:

Dad: “If I cannot afford the day fee how on earth do you think I will be able to afford boarding.”

Me: “How much food does your son eat?”

Dad: “Stacks - you know him.”

Me: “Say 100 pounds per week?”

Dad: “And the rest….”

Me: “And remind me, you live…”

Dad: “30 miles away.”

Me: “So 120 miles a day?”

Dad: “Yes.”

Me: “600 miles per week, plus every Saturday for sports matches, another 60 miles since you stay to watch. A total of 660 miles per week. Your car, I guess, must do about 350 miles to a tank?”

Dad: “About that.”

Me: “And maybe 70 pounds a tank, so roughly 140 pounds per week.”

Dad: Silence

Me: “Laundry, let’s say two washes per week at 5 pounds each?”

Dad: Silence

Me: “So, 250 pounds per week, for 32 weeks per year, that’s 8000 pounds per year. Boarding is an extra 5500 per year, so you will be 2500 pounds a year better off.”

Dad: Silence

Me: “And that is saying nothing about the wear and tear on your car, the stress of getting up early and getting home late, nagging him about homework.”

Dad: “Where do I sign…”

Two years later the father had saved 5000 pounds, the son had 3 A grades at A Level and had had an amazing time. A simplistic tale perhaps, but the message is nonetheless valid. Boarding really does represent fantastic value for money. Come and visit, meet the staff and the pupils, see the facilities and judge for yourselves.