Is boarding school right for your child

For many families, boarding school is a family tradition which goes back generations. For other families, modern life requires work and travel commitments that make boarding for high school students a necessity. But the questions that are central to every parent’s concern are: will my child be happy as a boarder? And how do I know which boarding school will be a good fit?

First off, let’s look at five reasons why boarding may be a good thing for your child.

  • Collaboration, social skills and emotional intelligence. Living with others in close proximity brings challenges that promote the development of self through introspection, metacognition, and trying out new skills in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Independence and effective management of time. Utilising prep time for homework and study, following a structured schedule, taking care of one’s self, possessions and immediate environment encourages maturity. And, of course, living on campus simplifies so much as boarders can move between classes, sport and other activities without wasting time on travel.
  • Diversity. Being part of another “family” that includes members who are different to you exposes students to different worldviews, promotes discussion and understanding, and helps ensure the school’s values are inclusive.
  • Healthy relationships with parents and family. The teen years can be fraught, and in some instances boarding is extremely beneficial to teen-parent relationships.
  • Preparation for life after high school, especially for tertiary studies. Learning to handle responsibility in a structured but safe environment, to sort out normal daily challenges independently, to be considerate and to collaborate are all skills that many South African matriculants enter university without. Established boarding students adjust to tertiary education much faster and easier.

Even with this list of positives, parents and students will still have a host of questions. Unfortunately, school brochures and campus tours can seldom provide thorough answers. Somerset College, in the Cape Winelands, attracts students from all over Africa and beyond, many of whom join the school as boarders where they have the option to do the IEB curriculum to matric, or to switch to Cambridge AS and AL Levels for their last two years.

We asked the team that is intricately involved with the daily activities of boarding life at Somerset College to share their answers to the three questions they are most frequently asked by parents and prospective boarders. 

Does boarding school suit everyone?

“Different people have different needs and not all students naturally enjoy boarding”, says Ms Cindi van der Berg, Head of Girls’ Boarding at the College. While some teens love to spend time away from home and thrive on living on a school campus, others prefer their immediate family environment, she explains. 

“Traits in students that tend to make the adaptation to boarding easier include high levels of independence, a strong motivation to develop social skills, a drive to participate in a variety of extramurals, and the willingness to cohabit with a variety of different people,” says Cindi. 

Mr Hilton Toro is Head of Boys’ Boarding at Somerset College (where he has worked for 14 years). He adds that age also plays a large role in the suitability to board. “At College we only provide the option to board from Grade 8 and above. While there are always exceptions, students younger than Grade 8 often crave more frequent time with their family of origin.”

Tasmyn Jewell (Director of Pastoral/Academics at Somerset College) notes that “modern teens are not only navigating the developmental and socio-emotional challenges that young people face, they are also tasked with handling both internal and external expectations related to academics, sport and culture, friendships and of course social media. A boarding environment can provide a valuable sense of belonging and an additional support structure to teens. 

“It is important to note however that with an increase in neurodiversity and extremely different abilities to integrate the sensory environment, some students find boarding overstimulating – especially at first,” she adds 

At Somerset College, students coming into either Founders House (girls) or Vineyard House (boys) in Grade 8 go through a specialised welcome period in which they are assisted to adapt to a “family away from their family.”

Cindi suggests that if a child shows an interest in boarding, the first step is to make enquiries from a school and arrange an in-person visit. “But then don’t be afraid to follow this up with more discussions if you have concerns – don’t feel embarrassed to ask questions,” she adds.

Tasmyn agrees. “Look at as many different options as you can to find a school that provides transparency and has full support structures in place. Once you’ve decided on one school, give boarding a try for a period of time, to see whether it is suitable.”

If boarding is a “family away from a family”, what ratios should exist between students and staff?

“A smaller hostel or boarding house is preferable,” says Cindi, “but however small or large, there should be a ratio of at least one teacher to every 15 students. At Somerset College, we keep the total number of boarders to 120. Each hostel head has six support staff or boarding house assistants – which then brings it to a ratio of 1:10. Add the school grade heads and pastoral team and it probably comes down to something like 1:5.” 

Tasmyn adds: “It stands to reason that the larger an institution is, the harder it is to maintain personal contact – and in the context of adolescents, the harder it is to ensure well-being through the provision of firm boundaries.” An advantage to attending a school that provides boarding as an option, is that you get the perks that large numbers of “day” students bring on a daily basis during academics and extramurals – while the boarding house numbers remain relatively smaller and more intimate.

What about initiation practices?

“One should never blur the boundaries between the provision of healthy orientation and scaffolding, and outdated and highly destructive initiation practices, hazing and bullying,” says Tasmyn. 

Hilton agrees: “All schools should condemn initiation and hazing.” (Hazing is a power-play where new members of a group or team are expected to participate in degrading or risky behaviour.) “There should also be water-tight protocols in place, which are tirelessly implemented.” Hilton adds that every student at Somerset College is aware of the expectations with regards to respect and dignity. 

“We also make sure that students know what support and care systems are in place,” says Cindi. “Effective strategies involve the entire team of boarding staff, academic and pastoral staff, management, parents and of course students.”

“An ethical life attitude must be cultivated throughout life,” says Tasmyn. “Every member of society must be guided to become more aware of how they treat others. Respect and tolerance is the best way to promote another person’s sense of self and dignity.” Somerset College’s values include DIGNITY, CREATIVITY, ASPIRATION AND CONTRIBUTION. Dignity does not stand first in this list by accident, she concludes.

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