Hogwarts and all

An empty bed, an empty chair, a small packed suitcase on the stair. Tough on parents, but usually great for kids, Joanna England mulls the boarding school option

For most parents, the mere thought of sending their offspring to a boarding school thousands of miles away is enough to get them hyperventilating. But for decades children’s literature has extolled the virtues (and exciting adventures) to be had within the walls of a traditional boarding school and, let’s face it, sometimes boarding is not only a child’s or a parent’s preferred choice – but their very best option. Sue Anderson, of Sue Anderson Consulting, knows a thing or two about boarding. Having visited 350 boarding schools in the UK, worked in them, and sent all four of her own children to them, she now advises parents on this most difficult of decisions.

‘There are several “types” of families for whom boarding school offers the best solution,’ she explains. ‘At some point in a child’s life, there has to be consistency in their education – and for families that are mobile, this is often the option they take once their children reach high school age. Likewise, children with learning difficulties may face problems in overseas schools as provisions for dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia are often not met. Then there are families who have lived abroad for many years and want their children to take their A Levels in a boarding school to prepare them for university life in their home country.’ But it’s not just academic excellence, she insists. There are many other benefits to attending boarding school. ‘There’s quality of life to consider too,’ she says. ‘Teenagers in the UAE quite often spend their weekends hanging around shopping malls and complaining that there’s little else to do. Boarding school provides a full schedule of weekend activities that keeps them busy, they are constantly surrounded by their peers in a sociable environment – and they learn to be a little more independent from mum and dad.’

Catherine Langley, a Dubai-based journalist, spent her high school years boarding in the UK. She says, ‘My parents went to Saudi for work and it was the best solution at the time. I got a good education and had some great times there.’ However, she points out, ‘It’s not for everyone. If you’re introverted and not happy to be there, it can make you even more withdrawn – and there’s always the fact that you can’t get away from the school bully. However, if you get into the social scene and make an effort, you can make great friends and will fit right in.’

Sue agrees. ‘Primarily it has to be the child’s decision – they have to want to go. The ideal age for children to start boarding school is between 11 and 13. At this age, they have a greater understanding of the choice they are making, they are at a good place academically because they’ll have time to settle before the really hard work starts – and they’re also at the stage where they’re craving a little independence from their parents.’

While many parents fear their kids won’t cope with the homesickness, Sue is quick to allay such concerns. ‘There’s always a period of adjustment, but in 99 per cent of cases, it’s the parents who suffer most. By the end of the first term, they are reassured by how well their children have settled in.’

However, the selection process for choosing a school and preparing your child for the initial separation,should be rigorous, says Sue. Parents should give themselves a good 18 months to get everyone used to the idea and to have enough time to view the prospective schools. They should also make sure they visit those schools during term time so that they can actually gauge the working atmosphere.

Prep list

Select five or six schools to view – some may offer a sleep-over facility so students can ‘test’ a school – and check out the following:
Cost – the average UK boarding school charges between Dhs40,000 to Dhs53,000 per term.

Location – is it near extended family and an airport?

Facilities – if your child loves art or is sports mad, there’s no sense in considering a college that specialises in music.

Boarding – how many ‘full’ boarders are there? What are their ages and nationalities?

Weekend programme – what are the activities your child can get involved in?

Do it yourself

Still not sure what’s best for you? Home schooling could be the answer. Ideal for both tiding you over while you make a decision, or as a long-term option, home-schooling is totally portable – wherever you and your family end up. Private online schooling firm K12 International Academy has an office in Dubai and follows the American system.
For more details, visit www.k12.com/int or call 04 374 8247/48.

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