Sunday 25 August 2019

Are boarding schools really a home from home?

They are keen to distance themselves from the bleak educational gulags of the past, but parents' confidence in boarding schools has been severely shaken by recent reports of an alleged assault at the King's Hospital school. Do these institutions offer a suitable environment for young people to grow up in?

Break from the boarders: Principal Oliver Murphy outside Castleknock College. Photo: Tony Gavin
Break from the boarders: Principal Oliver Murphy outside Castleknock College. Photo: Tony Gavin
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The broadcaster Ivan Yates once said of his boarding school experience that "terror mixed with homesickness" led him to cry himself to sleep, night after night.

The modern Irish boarding school is keen to present a more humane image than that of the bleak educational gulags suffered by Yates and many of his contemporaries in the late 1960s and early 70s.

The advocates of modern boarding institutions insist that they are ideal places for young people to grow up in. Often situated in fine rambling country houses or castles along tree-lined avenues, boarding schools supposedly offer their students the opportunity to spend all of their time with friends, playing games and taking part in spiffing Harry Potter-style adventures.

In this idealised world, presented in some of the school brochures, living in one of these institutions is like having a five-year sleepover - the only difference being that you are not at home.

Their apologists will tell you that they teach children independence and self-reliance.

The children may be homesick at first, but the parents are reassured that the offspring will get over it.

Most of Ireland's 29 boarding schools have gone to strenuous lengths to present a more homely atmosphere: the cold, spartan dormitories with row upon row of steel beds have been thoroughly revamped, and the modern-day resident can expect much more than a breakfast of lumpy gruel.

Girls boarding at Wesley College in Dublin, for example, will find that there are no longer dormitories. The school's website emphasises a "warm and nurturing environment".

The newly renovated "cosy but spacious" bedrooms have heated towel rails and dressing tables. They house a maximum of four, with many girls in the senior years in rooms of just two people.

The students are encouraged to personalise their rooms as much as possible with posters and photos from home, as well as any rugs and cushions that make the space their own.

The atmosphere in the modern institution may be designed to be more welcoming, but the confidence of parents in boarding schools may have been severely shaken by recent reports of an alleged assault at the King's Hospital school in Dublin.

The garda and child and family agency Tusla are investigating the alleged incident at the prestigious Church of Ireland boarding school, following a claim that a 13-year-old boy was sexually assaulted in a dormitory with a hockey stick by a group of other pupils.

The incident will inevitably prompt questions about whether a boarding school really is a suitable environment for a child to grow up in.

To hand over your boy or girl to the care of teachers or other supervisors, who are often complete strangers, for most of their teenage years, requires a remarkable level of trust, according to critics of the boarding-school environment.

Read more: Panti Bliss on his boarding schools experience: 'Abusers were probably wary of mouthy kids like myself'

"You send a child to boarding school and they are left to the vagaries of whoever happens to be taking care of them, and the group of children they are with," psychotherapist Joy Schaverien tells Review.

"They might be lucky and have a lovely group of children and kind adults; or they could be exposed to highly disturbed people, and there is nobody there to protect them." Schaverien, a therapist based in England, came up with the term 'Boarding School Syndrome' to describe a set of lasting psychological problems that are observable in adults who, as children, were sent away from their home to boarding schools.

Symptoms, according to Schaverien, may include problems with anger, depression, anxiety, failure to sustain relationships, and fear of abandonment.

"The child learns not to cry because they don't get a normal response.

"Usually, when they are at home, a child gets a loving response, but that may not happen, so they learn not to show emotion. In later life that can show up in a lack of empathy."

Much of the therapist's work is based on younger children going to boarding school, but she believes it can also have a dire effect when a child is 12 or 13.

"It depends how vulnerable the child is. At puberty, children still need to have loving adults around them and education in emotional relationships."

It remains to be seen if the reports from King's Hospital affect the numbers boarding in the country as a whole.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a decline in the number of boarders in Irish schools.

Well-known schools such as Castleknock College in Dublin, Newbridge College, Knockbeg College and Our Lady's Bower school in Athlone no longer take boarders.

Kylemore Abbey girls' boarding school shut down in 2010.

The decline is as much to do with the practical difficulties of running and financing a boarding school as parental distaste for handing over their offspring and a hefty wad of cash to the institutions.

"Running a boarding school and paying for staff to stay there became more and more expensive," Oliver Murphy, principal of Castleknock College in Dublin, says.

Like many boarding schools, Castleknock would have had a large contingent of priests in the past (it was founded by the Vincentian order).

"Fifty years ago, there would have been priests and they would have done the games, the study and the after-school activities. There was also falling demand for boarding among parents."

Having once only admitted boarders, Castleknock is now a thriving fee-charging day school that regularly finishes close to the top of the school league tables for admission to third level.

There is still a strong tradition of boarding among Church of Ireland children and this has its roots in the scarcity of Protestant schools across the country.

There are no tuitions fees for day pupils and boarders at Wilson's Hospital School in Multyfarnham, Co Westmeath. Boarders pay €8,000 per year for staying in the school, but if their parents' income is below a certain level, they may receive grants.

Read more: Fear extends into night - research raises concerns about bullying among boarders

Niamh McShane, warden of Wilson's Hospital, is keen to dispel any image from the past of boarding schools as stern, unwelcoming places.

"I have worked in boarding schools for 16 years and in my experience they offer a safe, family environment - and students thrive on it," says McShane, formerly a teacher at Alexandra College in Dublin.

"I have seen students doing very well boarding and responding very well to the lifestyle.

"Students benefit from the structure and routine that a boarding school provides. With the reduction of commuting times and all services being provided on site, they can make the most of their time."

One concern of parents is that children in boarding school may have nobody to turn to if they are bullied or upset.

McShane says that is not the case in schools such as Wilson's Hospital, and the school claims it has a system of care that is unsurpassed.

The school has a full-time matron on call all the time, and there are staff awake at night and available.

Most of the bedrooms have just three or four beds, and are carpeted and heated.

"We are very concerned about ensuring their happiness and contentment," says the warden. "A learner will only learn when they are happy. Students have a feeling here that they are being looked after.

"I have read Enid Blyton and about boarding schools of the past, but that is not the world we live in. Boarding schools have moved with the times."

While many of the Protestant boarding schools continue to attract large numbers of pupils, there are much fewer middle-ranking Catholic boarding schools, charging low fees.

Knockbeg College in Carlow continues to thrive as a day schools, but closed its boarding section in 2011.

"It was becoming increasingly difficult to staff the boarding school round the clock and provide the kind of facilities that parents would expect," a former teacher at the school says.

At the upper end of the market, however, schools such as Clongowes continue to be in heavy demand, and fees are just under €19,000 per child per annum.

So what attracts parents who continue to the prestige boarding schools?

Academic success is an obvious attraction, and top fee-charging schools such as Clongowes and Glenstal usually finish close to the top of the school league tables.

Parents may not spell it out directly, but social cachet is another obvious magnet for affluent families.

Well-to-do parents have always been attracted to prestigious private boarding schools, because they offer upward social mobility.

Ciaran O'Neill, lecturer in history at Trinity College, says the prestige attached to a school like Clongowes has hardly changed since James Joyce portrayed life in the school in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man a century ago.

Read more: Money talks when it comes to getting success in the college stakes

In one scene in the novel, ­Stephen's father, Mr Dedalus, goes mad when it occurs to him his son might have to attend a Christian Brothers school as the family could no longer afford Clongowes.

"Christian Brothers be damned! said Mr Dedalus. Is it with Paddy Stink and Mickey Mud? No, let him stick to the Jesuits in God's name... They'll be of service to him in after years. Those are the fellows who can get you a position."

Dr O'Neill, author of Catholics of Consequence, a book about elite Irish schooling in the 19th century, says going to boarding school is still about retaining your social status or attaining a higher status.

"The situation has hardly changed. Have a look at the Supreme Court or in the big accountancy firms, or across business and the top schools still dominate."

While boarding schools value their traditions, they now pay more attention to the pastoral care of their students, according to Dr James O'Higgins Norman, director of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University.

"As well as the formal education and delivery of the curriculum, the school must be concerned for the well-being and care of the students, particularly if they have emotional difficulties," says Dr O'Higgins Norman.

"In the past, housemasters and housemistresses tended to see their role as enforcing discipline. Today their role is much more about helping students to grow into a happy person.

"When parents place their children in a boarding school they are giving them an enormous responsibility, and asking them to take on parental responsibilities that they would normally have themselves," adds the anti-bullying expert.

"It is crucial that the boarding school creates an atmosphere where young people can talk to somebody if there is something they are worried or concerned about."

Even for those who had a bad boarding school experience, there are bound to be compensations.

As the writer Roald Dahl put it: "Unless you have been to boarding school when you are very young, it is absolutely impossible to appreciate the delights of living at home."

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