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What was it really like to go to boarding school?

A surprising number of children are sent away from home to be educated. Four local people, who shared this experience, tell Kerry McKittrick if it was grade A or well below average.

Published 05/08/2015

Fictional favourite: JK Rowling’s Hogwarts
Fictional favourite: JK Rowling’s Hogwarts
Fictional favourite: Jane Eyre’s Lowood School
High society: Danny’s former boarding school, Stowe School
Fictional favourite: Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers
Danny Kinahan
Pam Yeh
Chloe Hawthorn
Ian Baxter-Crawford

Boarding schools conjure up images of midnight feasts at Enid Blyton's fictional Malory Towers, or magical goings-on at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, brought to life in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series.

In the book Tom Brown's School Days, we hear of epic cricket matches and bonding together to beat the bullies, while the pupils in the St Clare's books had a jolly old time with their hockey sticks and harmless classroom pranks.

Boarding is often associated with the wealthy classes, with key members of the royal family attending these educational establishments. And little wonder, when the average cost of boarding schools in Britain is £31,000 a year, according to a new study by FXcompared Intelligence.

The report looked at fees at the top 100 schools across the UK, and found that the cost at Eton, Harrow and Winchester exceeded £34,000 a year.

And while fees here are a lot less expensive, a number of Northern Irish schools, including Methodist College, Belfast and Dominican College, Portstewart, offer boarding as well.

But what is life really like for school boarders? Is it all hard work and homesickness, or is it the best possible education a child can get?

We talk to four local people who spent time at boarding school.

Danny Kinahan MP (57), lives in Templepatrick with his wife, Anna, and their children, Eliza (22), Tara (21), Hugo (19) and Mia (15). He says:

I first boarded at the age of seven at a Scottish school called Craigflower. My dad was in politics and away all the time, and my mother was also away a lot, painting. I wouldn't send a child off to school at that age, but you really learned how to be independent and stand up for yourself.

I didn't like it at all - we started every single day with physical training outside, whatever the weather. Mind you, I made great friends there.

When I was 13, I went to Stowe in the Duke of Buckingham's old house. I did miss home, though. We were allowed home three weekends out of every four, but I couldn't go because my home was back in Northern Ireland.

However, there were 14 of us on my first flight over to Stowe, so at least there was someone else from the same part of the world there.

In my day, we would have slept in a dormitory of 14 iron beds, but my children have all boarded and they have had their own little closed-off spaces.

There were some really tight rules - we weren't allowed upstairs to the dormitories during the day for any reason. Some boarding schools had fagging - where younger pupils acted as servants for older ones - but Stowe actually didn't. Everyone pitched in to help their house run.

It did make me quite independent. It was up to me to show up for the right class in the right uniform with all of my homework done. Once that was done, I could go off and play football or do a hobby. I was always busy, and on Wednesday afternoons when I wasn't doing school work, I would be out doing community work.

My father went to Stowe, and two of my children went too - they all went away to school because they wanted to. They were all aged 13, which I think is the right age to do it. They also have Facebook, and can keep in contact with each other, which we couldn't do in my day, of course.

I know that schools here produce very well-educated children but, with hindsight, I think that getting out of Northern Ireland was a good thing.

There are doors that open to you after you attend a school like that. Stowe got me into the Army, which got me lots of contacts. Then I went to Edinburgh University, so I met lots of people from my prep school there and made more contacts.

It was expensive, though, and my father used to sit down with the school bill and go through it with me to see if there was anything he didn't have to buy me. That really brought home to me how privileged I was.

Pam Yeh (45) is a communications officer and lives in Belfast with her husband, Patrick, and their children, Alex (14) and Lottie (10). She says:

I’m originally from Malaysia and I first came to Northern Ireland to do my A-levels at Methodist College.

I came here because Methodist College has a very good reputation in Malaysia. Schools in Northern Ireland tend to have a good reputation in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, and their fees are generally much lower than independent schools in England.

I came because I thought it would improve my chance of getting into a UK university — I already spoke English.

It was a bit of a culture shock to arrive here, but I think that because I was 16, I was ready to be separated from my parents. Boarding enables you to be independent, but there is still a structure in place.

You learn how to budget at boarding school. Your parents will put your pocket money into an account, but you have to manage it. Although there were laundry facilities for the younger pupils, sixth-formers tended to do their own.

The good thing was the study. It was from 6.30pm until 9pm, and you had to spend that time doing homework and being supervised by a teacher.

I think the food was okay. Culturally, I did get a little homesick, because the food here is so different from Malaysia. We tend to eat later there and have a cooked meal in the evening, instead of one at lunchtime, as it was in school.

Being in sixth-form, though, meant that at weekends you could go and cook for yourself in the kitchen. I learned how to cook at school, and others would show me how to do it. It really helped culturally that there were other Malaysian people there — I’ve only realised that quite recently. Not that long ago, we returned from eight years living in Singapore, so my son has just started at Methodist College. He’s finding it a big culture shock. I can see how lucky I was to have kids of a similar outlook with me at the same time.

I loved my time at boarding school, and I met some of my best friends there. We know each other inside out because we lived there together. I might not have liked it when I was there, but, looking back, I had a really good time.”

Chloe Hawthorn (21) lives in Hampshire but is originally from Holywood. She says:

From the age of four, I went to Rockport School, but I started boarding when I was 13. At the time, my mum was diagnosed with cancer, and she thought it would provide me with a stable life and help me concentrate on my education.

Mum recovered, but I decided to stay boarding because I liked it so much.

It meant I could focus — if I could procrastinate in any way, believe me, I would.

At school, there is time set aside in the evening for study, so you might as well do it then. It becomes routine, while at home there are too many distractions.

I’m an only child, too, so it was great to have so many people around.

When I first started, there were dormitories, but by the end that had changed to rooms with three or four of us in them.

Rockport School didn’t do A-levels at the time I went there, so I went on to the Royal School in Armagh and boarded there.

Again, that was my choice — I wanted to board so I could focus on my exams. In Armagh, the sixth-formers had a bit more autonomy. We were in our own houses with our own rooms. There were boarding masters, but they weren’t too involved. Dinner was provided, but there was also a kitchen in the house we could use.

I went to university in England, and I think if it hadn’t been for boarding school, I would have struggled with that move. But I was independent at a young age. At university, I met people who couldn’t even cook their own pasta.

I certainly wouldn’t do things differently. If I have my own children, I would probably send them to board for a couple of years, even though I would miss them. But I really believe that it would build up their independence.”

Ian Baxter-Crawford (34) is a communications officer and lives in Bangor with his civil partner, Stephen. He says:

Originally, I’m from inner-city London. I was always given a choice about my education, and Christ’s Hospital was the kind of school that offered a place to children who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, like me. My mother heard about it a couple of years before I went, so we started going to visit and see what it was like. The school resembles Hogwarts with its own train station, and it is the most amazing building in the Sussex countryside.

For an 11 year-old it was like another world — in fact, they used the school dining hall as the model for the one in the Harry Potter films. I was the first person in my family to go to boarding school, and there was a bit of getting used to it. You go and visit the school and stay over so they can figure out if you’re the kind of person who’d be happy there.

For me, boarding school was like seven years of living with my mates. There were rules, of course, but I don’t concentrate easily, so for me the structure worked really well.

There certainly was a routine as well. We were woken up by bells in the morning, and every day apart, from Sundays, we marched into lunch with a full marching band. There could be a lot of time to yourself but there was always something going on.

I think I probably have a better relationship with my parents now because I went away. I realised that I had to make an effort with them early on, so now we talk all the time, even though I live in Northern Ireland.

When I started, the dormitories were pretty basic — metal beds with horsehair mattresses and no curtains. 

Christ’s Hospital has a very distinct uniform, with a black coat and yellow socks that’s been in place for a couple of hundred years. It was a great leveller, though, because there were kids there from every background — those who paid fees and those who didn’t, like me. It was also mixed with girls and boys.

One thing boarding school teaches you is how to interact with people. I was in a house with 50 boys, and you’re not going to get on all the time, so you learned how to be diplomatic.

It doesn’t matter to me hugely that I went to boarding school, but it feels like there’s always a tie there. If I had any kids, I probably would send them, but, of course, that would depend on the child. For me, it was the most amazing education.”

Belfast Telegraph

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