A generation or two ago, children going to boarding school did so at the age of seven or eight and anything else was the exception. No longer. Boarding schools today offer much greater flexibility over both the point of entry and the style of boarding (full time, weekly, part-time or flexi-boarding). This is a good thing for children, but as so often in education it it gives parents a difficult decision to make. The only right answer is what’s right for your child in the circumstances. So how do you make the decision?
Your first concern has to be for your child’s wellbeing, but bear in mind that boarding can actually have a positive impact on this. If you are so busy that you cannot spend quality time with your child during the week they may well relish the stability that boarding offers. If you live in a busy city, think of how your child might benefit from spending time in a rural environment with plenty of space to play and grow. You cannot expect a child to understand that simply by having it explained to them; you need to involve them in the decision-making process. In my experience children who feel they have played a part in choosing their school are much more likely to thrive there.
It is often best to introduce a child to the idea of boarding without putting any sense of time on the decision. If you can, find a couple of schools that you like and take your child to see them on the basis that they might go there one day rather than in a specific timeframe. You can do this when they are quite young. At nine or ten most children will give you a clear indication of whether boarding is something they might be happy doing now or later. Your child will soon tell you if they like the school. If they do, ask about doing a taster day first before trying an overnight visit (unless your child is keen to go straight to an overnight stay – if that happens, they are probably going to be fine boarding). Most prep schools will be happy to offer this service, and by the time you have done it you will know for certain whether you have found the right school. This is not to say that your child will not find things difficult at some point once they start, but if the school is right you will know that the staff will help your child when they are finding things hard. Remember that they can be just as difficult at home.
Of course it may be that you are not able to visit schools yourself, and this is when the services of a schools placement agency can be invaluable. A good one will take the time to get to know you and your child and will be able to advise you knowledgeably on the right school for you. You should listen to their advice with an open mind. They know the schools intimately and they know which ones will get the best from your child. It is in their interest to help you find a school where your child will be happy and successful. Once the agency has made the introductions, the school may well be able to help find ways for your child to get to know them before starting.
You may find that a school you like can offer a summer term start. If so, it is well worth considering. The lighter evenings and warmer weather of a British summer are fantastic for chilldren, and there is always plenty to look forward to in the summer term. Many families in my own school find a summer term start to be an excellent way of settling in, especially for younger boarders. If we can possibly accommodate them, we do.
To summarise, if boarding is going to be a possibility it is a good idea to consider it seriously at a reasonably early age. Nine or ten is not too early, and some do it at eight. You and your child may not actually choose the boarding option at that point, but early exposure to the opportunities offered by boarding will allow you to make an informed decision together. It will also make the transition very much easier when the right moment comes.
This post was first written for William Clarence Education.