The Good, The Bad and The Variable of Boarding School

A while back, I wrote about my childhood experiences with the Singaporean educational system.  I compared my experiences somewhat unfavorably with my experience living and studying in an Australian boarding school.  I have since been inundated with questions about boarding school and thought it prudent to write a little about my experiences.

I’ve noticed that many people tend to have romanticised view of boarding schools as structured and wholesome environments in which children are encouraged to learn independence.  Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, for instance, gives a portrayal of boarders as supportive of each other, helping to grow and hone the personalities of their peers.  The famous Harry Potter series has a slightly different take on the whole situation, but Hogwarts still sounds like a pretty fun (albeit slightly dangerous) place to stay.  These books are not wholly inaccurate, boarding school can be a fun and supportive environment.  It can also be like this:

Before you pack your child off to a boarding school, watch St Trinians or Summer Heights High.  St Trinians has a ridiculously over-the-top heist plot, but does touch a little on the kinds of things that go on behind closed doors in boarding school.  Summer Heights High may be a complete mockumentary, but is still an accurate, if only slightly exaggerated representation of the attitudes and the culture of the disaffected youth of Australia.

Here are some things to think about, based on my personal experiences.  Please bear in mind that I studied in one of the most prestigious Christian-affiliated All Girls’ school in Australia.

The Good Things (Things that are inherently good)

1.  Independence in Learning
I cannot stress how important it is to be able to pick your own subjects for study.  The school I was at offered a wide variety of classes for students and was very good at rearranging a child’s timetable to suit their needs.  In the first semester of schooling, I was allowed to swap classes in and out of my schedule so that I could better gauge my ability and affinity for each subject.  This is considered normal practise, so long as I was motivated enough to catch up with the rest of the students on my own time.

This gave me an enormous advantage in experience and ultimately allowed me to settle into my chosen Higher School Certificate (HSC) subjects: Advanced English, 3-unit Mathematics, Japanese Continuers, Biology and Chemistry, all of which I scored very well in the examinations for, and most of which I had never done before.  I carried myself through the examinations on the basis of my passion for the lessons and I enjoyed every last bit of it.

2.  Quality of Teaching
The Australian Board of Studies evaluates its teachers based on their outcomes every 2-3 years.  During this audit, teachers have to allow a third party to sit in on their classes to evaluate the efficacy of their teaching and provide the evaluators with examples of good, bad and average work done by students.  The end result being that teachers are motivated to teach the slowest learners in their classes, and put in effort to encourage really great work from their brightest students.

Australian class sizes are smaller and periods are longer.  Class sizes are limited by the Teacher’s Union to a maximum of 32, but I don’t recall many individual classes being over 20 students.  Teachers spend 4-8 periods teaching a day and have more time to spend with students, which means more time to cater to the needs of individual students.  I had a particularly dedicated English teacher spend oodles of time working on my issues with answering HSC questions.  This remarkable woman worked hard with me because she could see potential in me that I couldn’t even see in myself, which led me to turn my barely passing marks in English into a full-blown A within the space of a month between the HSC mock examinations and the actual examinations at the end of the year.

The Bad Things (Awful Things that Happened or Might Happen)

1.  Lack of Supervision
Being away from parents gives a child plenty of autonomy.  Most boarding schools will provide a House Mistress/Master to be caretakers and guardians of your child in your absence.  However, these people’s actions are limited.  A housemistress can take steps to prevent a student from smoking or drinking on the school grounds, but has no ability to prevent said actions should the student do anything somewhere out of sight or off school grounds.  They can suspend a student’s ability to leave temporarily, but most schools have a maximum “locking” period.  The result is, if a child wants to do something naughty and are determined enough to do so, they will have the agency to do it.

2.  Sex, Drugs and Alcohol
There is no sugar-coating this issue.  Australians tend to have relaxed attitudes towards sex, alcohol and abuse of “soft drugs” like marijuana[1].  Most of the girls in my dormitory drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes.  As a strict 16-year-old teetotaller with a marked dislike of caring for a room full of vomiting teenagers, I was excluded from almost all parties.  This may sound like a bonus to your parental ears, but being left out by everyone else can be extremely upsetting for a teenaged girl.

Drug abuse is pretty rampant as well.  Most of the girls in my dormitory smoked the ganja and/or ate dexamphetamines.  Since it was common knowledge that I was prescribed Ritalin for my ADHD, nary a day went by without someone offering me money for my medication[2].

While there is plenty of peer pressure to abuse substances during school, most of my classmates would back off after being told that I wasn’t interested.  Sure, they would offer me substances out of a misplaced sense of kindness, but the issue wasn’t pushed overmuch.

Except where it came to sex.

Losing your virginity during high school is simply considered a rite of passage and there is plenty of pressure on a student to have sex.  When the other girls in school found out that I was a virgin, they harassed me constantly, distributing my phone number to boys from other schools in a misguided attempt to set me up on a date, lecturing me about the joys of promiscuity or paying boys to grind their hips against me at school dances[3].

3.  Depression and Suicide
Australian children may not have much by way of academic stress, but they still have stresses in their lives.  Many of the students in my school were not necessarily the most well-adjusted of children.  Many of the boarders in my school were wealthy and from privileged backgrounds, but were placed in boarding because their parents simply didn’t want to bother dealing with them.  These girls were depressed and a lot of them had major mental health issues.  While the school did attempt to provide some form of mental health support in the form of a school counselor, most of the problems went unsolved.

In the two years that I attended boarding school, two separate girls attempted suicide by cutting.  One of these girls was successful in her suicide attempt.  She was my roommate.

There was also a girl in one of the younger years who had such advanced paranoid schizophrenia that she thought that her walls and clothes were talking to her.  We never reported her mental issues because we thought she was joking. She ended up expelled from the school after attempting to stab her roommate with a pair of scissors.

The Variable Things (Things that have variable effects dependent on your child’s personality)

1.  Independence and Self-Motivation
Boarding school is a sink-or-swim environment.  With no parents to nag you, no maids to clean your room and nobody to generally coddle you, you’ll soon learn to make your own space in the world.  A child who is self-motivated will have little to no problem learning basic life skills, keeping themselves motivated to do their own studies and generally learning to be responsible for themselves.

An unmotivated child can completely vegetate in a boarding school environment.  Most schools provide laundry, cleaning and catering services, so it is entirely possible for anyone to simply take advantage of these basic services and put no effort into their own upkeep.  Boarding schools usually also schedule a specific “prep” period for doing homework, during which students are not allowed to leave their rooms or make much noise.  So long as a student is quiet and in their room during this period, they can pretty much get away with any activity they so choose, including napping, as homework is not checked by the house mistresses.

2.  Hazing and Bullying
Hazing happens, it’s just a part of life, a method by which teenagers (and some very silly adults) gauge the pecking order within an enclosed environment.  When I first entered boarding school, I had to endure two weeks of hazing, which included such ridiculous pranks as coffee in the shower heads, laundry used to decorate trees and a questionable bottle of Nutella.  It helps to have a healthy sense of humour about these things.  These actions were not done with a malicious spirit, but were simply a way that the teenaged girls of the boarding school amused themselves.

A child with a particularly strong will should be able to shrug off the hazing and thus gain the respect of his or her peers.  However, a child that isn’t capable of dealing with the hazing is likely to start a cycle of bullying, particularly if they start crying to the teachers.  Now that the other students know that they can get a rise out of him, they’ll redouble their hazing efforts, which may eventually blossom into full-blown bullying.

There will, of course, be other things to consider before sending your child to a boarding school, but I think I’ve covered most of the biggest issues in this post.  Boarding School did teach me a lot of life lessons, which I’ll be more than happy to share at a later date.

[1] I asked my Australian friends about this.  They ended up rattling lists of different high schools and their drug “specialties”.
[2] I did not manage my own Ritalin. All medications were kept at the nurse’s office and could only be accessed by the student they belonged to in the nurse’s presence. The nurse would then dispense the medication with a glass of water and watch as you ate it and drank the glass. These girls were paying me to keep the pill under my tongue, spit it out and sell it to them. They were that desperate for the drugs.
[3] I discouraged this practice by wielding very pointy knitting needles at all school dances.  The word spread pretty quickly that I was not to be trifled with.


7 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Variable of Boarding School

  1. Hey Becky, this reminds me of my friend who was sent (by parents with good intentions) to a (also all-girls christian) boarding school in Ireland at 14. She would not recommend it. I suppose it really depends on the individual student (age-wise, 14 is probably too young for most to be so far away from their parents), and there is probably another host of issues with it being a cross-cultural experience (be it the UK, Ireland or Australia)…

    • Yeah, culture shock can hit pretty hard. I took at least a month or two to really find my feet overseas. I think it might have been a bit easier for me to transition because both Debs and I had lived in a foreign setting before.

  2. Becky, your experience with girls wanting to buy ‘2nd hand’ drugs was also a real problem in the hospital I was working at in North England. Our rehab clinic was full of patients who would swallow their pills, then immediately sign themselves out for day leave. Downstairs, there would be addicts waiting with a tongue depressor and a ziploc bag. Our patients would spit or vomit into the bags and those dudes would actually BUY IT.

    Needless to say, we dealt with alot of nasty infected limbs in that hospital as well.

  3. Thanks for all the details.. I really wanted to go to boarding school after reading Malory Towers and my parents nearly sent me after Primary school but I’m glad they didn’t. I enjoyed secondary school here a lot and made very good, lifelong friends. I did go overseas for my uni days and I think by then, I was more mature and independent to handle staying alone without my parents’ supervision.

    Ai @ Sakura Haruka

    • The boarding school I attended had children from year 7 onwards, which is about 12 years old and beyond. The younger students didn’t have as much freedom as us older students and were mostly confined to the school grounds. Even then, they weren’t allowed out of the actual boarding school building very much.

      I think a lot of them adjusted to this restrictive environment pretty well, but being confined like that sometimes led to a bit of cabin fever. We got up to a lot of crazy pranks and shenanigans!

  4. My parents wants to send me to a boarding school,
    Bt I just simply don’t want to go anyway because earlier I was in a boarding school from class 7 at the age of 14 to 16 but,i somehow managed to leave the boarding school. And stayed two years at home and did schooling but now again my parents want me to,go to a boarding school for my higher studies, actually boarding life doesn’t suites me…how to solve this problem?

    • Hi Hrisikesh, even though I had some issues with boarding, I did find my time in boarding school quite fulfilling. Later, when I started University, I actually wished that I had a slot in the University’s housing, as it was difficult to handle dealing with landlords/apartment hunting every term when my lease was up. Personally, I’d make the best of it, since boarding school can be very fun and fulfilling even as it can be crazy and frustrating.

      If your parents are paying for your education, you might want to talk to them about your options with them. If they’re adamant that you go to boarding school, well, there’s always ways around that. You could consider looking for scholarships that allow you to attend the University of your choice. Or, you could do what I did – working and studying at the same time! I still had a lot of help from my parents though, so it’s always helpful to have their input.

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