About 5 years ago, I met a pal of mine from college days. We were meeting after 17years and so it was natural to ask about each other and our children’s schooling plans. I had studied at India’s leading “all boys” “fully residential” school located in Dehradun and my friend had been to a similar “all boys” “fully residential” school based in Darjeeling. (He lived in US and I was very much in Kolkata at that time.)
Anindya asked: “So what are your plans for your son?’.
My retort: “Of course, he will follow the family tradition and will head out to Dehradun in a year or two”.
Most, especially products of boarding schools, would have appreciated this action plan. But my friend shocked me when he suggested that “I was making a mistake and Boarding was so “18th century” and that he would never send his children to one.” I ignored what he had said at that time and attributed it to his own boarding experiences at his school. But that did allow me to become a little more open and added to my determination for exploring the pros/cons in today’s context.
Time went by and my son did move on to the boarding school in 2009 where he had been registered at the time of birth. Following his footsteps, my daughter too “was sent” to another similar boarding experience. Frankly, no regret for the decision taken at that time apart from the usual homesickness that the child experiences and well, to an increasingly greater “missing the child” experiences that the parents go through. No regret since the school was a dream that the family had pursued for a long time and it was time to grab the opportunity. And to establish a family tradition. I value my own schooling experience and there was this bias anyways that had overshadowed the doubts.
Over the years, my mind however kept swinging back to the comment of the friend who had declared boarding schools as an outdated concept. I tried to analyse to arrive at the possible reasons for his thoughts.
- In my times (early 80s) there were less quality schools in cities and also there was less opportunity in cities for an “all round” development that parents wanted for their children. This led to many parents deciding in favour of “british-format but Indian boarding schools” which were often situated in “hill stations” and interestingly almost always setup prior to the Indian independence. Hence they were either setup to educated the children of the british army officers on the same british type education that they would have given the children back in England or were setup for Indian royalty who wanted a similar education or were setup to prepare the Indian bureaucrats and politicians to be of the same mould as the British politicians/bureaucrats. Now, the need of the hour is different. There are more school options and certainly there is more being expected to be imparted by the schools than what used to be acceptable back then.
- The parental involvement today in raising of the child is far more than what used be back then. The role of father especially seems to have increased and the father is expected to participate in the general growing up of the child. This goes a long way in ensuring a happy childhood and further ensuring that the character is built accordingly.
- The occupations that children enter into today “more often than not” mean that they tend to live their lives away from the parent. In old days, this was not so.
- Today’s world requires more and more push towards sensitising and accepting to the other sex. Hence “co-ed” schools appear to be the future generally.
- The world today looks down and frowns upon “bullying” and “corporal punishments such as caning” which used to be part and parcel of the boarding culture at one time. And continues to exist in residential schools even today albeit in varying measure. However at that time bullying was part of the experience that turned boys into men.
I set these dissuading thoughts aside and went ahead with my decision. Why had I chosen to send my children to the boarding then…
- To teach them to think and become independent. With the ability to take the right decision at the right time.
- To be able to flower on their own and be exposed to all aspects of education and not merely academics. In addition to studies, I had felt that they needed to go on treks, play sports and generally develop physically too. I had felt that day schools tend to lack in this direction.
- I wanted them to be exposed to several other skill-sets such as carpentry, motor mechanics, genuine social service, art, music… which helps formulate the personality of a child and this, once again is not really delivered at the day schools.
- I wanted them to get an “Indian” education that prepared them for leadership position “within Indian industry, public service or otherwise” and hence had preferred this to several new “international schools and new age schools” that have opened up in larger cities and often promoted or supported by ex-teachers and ex-head masters of “the” school in Dehradun.
- I wanted them to make “real friends” and understand the concept of “network” and “old school ties”. In my experience, the 24 hour boarding experience does foster this more than day schools.
- I wanted them to meet other boys who came into the boarding from other parts of the country and hence become the first experience in diversity and differences. I have seen that day schools tend to cater to the same type of students and of the same economic groups and often from the same city. There is education even from peers after all.
- I wanted them to follow the family tradition of the children joining the schools of their parents.
- Most important-ly I wanted them also to get the BRAND of the school to their names and records.
The trepidation you feel when your child bids goodbye at the school gates can make way for a well-mannered, well-spoken young man or woman once they graduate. Most people who have spent time away from home in boarding school talk of an independence not seen in their peers, besides making friends for life and a sense of discipline.
Over the years, I learnt that the reality seemed to throw up some more minuses and negated some of the pluses that I listed…
- Most Boarding Schools in India NOW have 70-80% of their students from locations from that region. With more school options across India, parents are also considering local options. NRIs especially from far away have almost stopped sending their wards to India for the education as they used to at one time. Hence they are not really a cross-national student group.
- The need for higher academic results means that even boarding schools need to focus more on academic in the final years. This is understandable but what is not understandable is that this compromises with the “all round development” ethos of the schools. They can’t help it since most parents are now from backgrounds who insist that the school focuses more and more on academics (read rote learning) as they would like their wards to be able to get into “brand” colleges on graduation from “brand” schools.
- Bullying seems to be coming back in spurts into the boarding schools. I would say that it was always there but then strong disciplinarians ensured that it was within limits. In some cases, some schools have taken hard measures but then it is a rarity now. Schools need to take hard measures even with small instances of bullying as bullying has far reaching emotional harm that lasts over a life time. While India has “criminal” acts for curtailing ragging, bullying within residential schools don’t go reported often.
- Boarding schools needs very good teachers too. However more than their academic prowess, they need to be “all rounders” themselves. They need to live round the clock with the boys who are in troubling teens. Hence the ability to be able to manage them out of respect or authority is of critical importance. There is a feeling that this breed of teachers is getting more difficult to find. Less “males” in India are opting to take up “teaching” as an occupation. With weaker control of the teachers in a boarding schools, there is a risk of boys getting distracted even more and discipline suffers in the residential houses.
“I must admit that caning was a regular feature during our stay in the school…As students, we did not resist or fight against it. It was part of our curriculum in a sense and I think we were better off with it than without. Indeed, there were occasions when we opted for it as against, when given the choice of an alternative,” the Big B wrote on his blog post. Even though caning was considered acceptable in his school and his fellow students used to take it in a sporting way, Amitabh Bachchan opined that corporal punishment in schools should be admonished now. “That was 1956! It is 2010 now. If now, Abhishek or Shweta (his daughter) or Agastya and Navya-Naveli (his grandchildren) were to be even spoken loudly against, it would incense me. Times have changed and so have circumstances. I would strongly oppose corporal punishment in schools now,” his blog read.
Caning and corporal punishments are now largely non-existent in leading schools but am reminded of the instance when in recent years, the principal of a leading day school in Kolkata introduced this as he had moved in from a boarding school where it was practiced. In that instance, the boy committed suicide and it lead to severe condemnation of the practice.
However, I still wanted to instil my children with the pluses of the boarding schools and believed that some of the above existed even in our times and we had sharpened due to them. No model is perfect and so we have to only weigh the pros against the cons. I differentiated a little from the way my parents interacted with me then. The times have changed and so just visiting the children once in a year (apart from the time that they spent with us in holidays) was not enough and so I budgeted for at least one visit each month. The use of e-mails and phone calls certainly is a boon today as in my time, there was only limited postal contact. So, off went my 11 year old boy and 8 year old daughter to a boarding in 2009.
You will notice the stress on “I” in this blog, since the “I” in my family was always more convinced on the “boarding option”. My wife had gone to a day school and was always a good “balancer” in this debate.
BUT…, I was never 100% sure… did I sent my daughter a little early and should I keep my wards in boarding right till the final graduation from schools. My wife and I spent countless hours talking to our children during their vacations and then looking at a number of factors, felt that they should now be with us. We talked to several of the teachers (current and former) and “We” withdrew them from their boarding experience after about 3.5 years. Not because we have anything against the schools. Just that we felt that we had got from the boarding, what we wanted. We wanted the children to experience boarding and this they had… Now the final years of their schooling, when the focus is primarily on academics anyways, can be with us. Further, we all know that children have to go their ways and so it is important for them to stay with us a little more.
Are there any lessons? Yes… Boarding is important but it should be for right reasons.
- Parents should not expect the wards to be super boys or super girls that they manage an “all round education” and still compete with graduating students from day schools for marks where the boys/girls are sacrificing all activities and undertaking coaching/tuitions to get the grades and clear competitive exams. In long term, the academics don’t count as much as the “all round education” does.
- Parents should not believe that the schools will become the parents. They will not. Parents have to continue to remain aware of needs of the children and intact, the responsibilities increase once the wards are in a boarding environment.
- Do not send children who are too young to boarding. Certainly not in Class 1.
- If your goal is for the child to take the various competitive exams for admission to professional colleges in India, withdraw them after the Year 10 and let them join a day school with an academic focus. This is not ideal but there are limited other options.
- Boarding Schools remain an excellent option for parents who are not able to devote adequate time to raising of the children. Instead of the kids growing up un-observed and without exposure to all kinds of sporting and other activities, Boarding Schools are preferred.
- Parents need to look for any signals that the children are unhappy. Homesickness apart, there are instances of bullying and the schools mayn’t be fully truthful on this account. Always believe your child. He needs you. Any instances that are unacceptable should be taken up with the school. Think of yourself as a customer to the school.
In the TOI article quoted psychiatrist Varsha Patkar advises, “The risk is higher in boarding schools. Parents must be alert to any mood changes, for instance, if grades suddenly fall, there are complaints of bullying by friends, if he’s daydreaming, etc. If the child cries and insists on coming back home, don’t ignore it. It could be a cry for help.”
So is boarding an outdated concept? They do need to change. If they do not change, they will definitely become outdated and will not attract the best from around the country and will become a schooling option for those from smaller cities with limited quality schooling. Change with the time. Some are changing but there are some drastic changes required with the traditional schools that can imbibe the best of both worlds into the boarding experience. How to increase the involvement of parents? How to retain more and more quality “male” teachers in a “boys” school? Should “same sex” schools become “co-ed”? How to focus on a clear “mission” for the school rather than become confused by attempting to differentiate themselves from “international” schools? How to attract students from across the nation and those who live overseas? The reality is that “boarding schools” who have not changed internationally have actually gone out of vogue. And… time for British Styled Education which prepared the cadres that behaved in one manner across all the British Colonies around the world has actually lost out once the empire crumbled.
Some schools (certainly a few richie-rich boarding or semi-boarding experiments) have tried to differentiate…
Boarding schools are now home away from home. They can download movies on their laptops or get on Skype and have regular chats with parents. The rules are not as stiff and students can chat on their mobile phones on the weekends and even book their plane tickets to fly home!
Says educationist Shyama Chona, “Today’s schools are airconditioned, kids can go home every weekend. Earlier, we monitored who picked up the kids, but now they go on their own. A boarding school experience makes a child independent and I recommend it for every child.”
Not all boarding schools follow the above though even the traditional residential schools have had to change. Students interact more with parents using emails (if not Skype) and certainly the advent of social media, lets them remain more connected. The romance of school parties where boys/girls from far off cities would take overnight trains to reach school at the beginning and closure of terms have now been replaced by flights and mobile phones have managed to sneak into the schools albeit illegally. These had to happen. Traditionally oriented boarding school teachers however frown at these changes but that is topic of another blog.
Bollywood often has shown the boarding schools in poor light. In Tare Zameen Par, the little boy was sent to a boarding as a punishment. In the film Udaan, the protagonist Rohan comes back home after eight years to find a total disconnect with his father. Come On, which boarding school keeps boys over the long breaks each year… Both are extremes but it is not uncommon that some parents often chastise their children saying that if they are naughty, they will be sent off to a hostel. Have those parents experienced a boarding themselves to know that it is bad?
There are many reasons parents use for sending children away for studies – family tradition, a status symbol, disciplining a pampered or errant child. The parents of a young girl wanted to send her away for disciplining and self-introspection as she was constantly on the phone with her numerous boyfriends.
The Boarding School concept has strong advantages but the advantage today are different to what they were set up for. They no longer prepare the boys for leadership within Indian bureaucracy and certainly are more of an “international school”. I know several schools (including mine) that brags at being an Indian School which was established to prepare Indians to lead India, I find that with increasing focus on overseas education and settlement, there is little to differentiate it from an International School. No harm in that but we should call a spade, a spade. If you are a parent who has reasons similar to mine, go ahead and expose your ward to a boarding experience as I did. Rest assured, you will not regret. However, only go for the right reasons.
In 1981 when I was being sent off to a boarding, my father had picked out a couplet from “Ram Charit Manas” to indicate that going off to a boarding has been the norm ever since the days of Lord Ram. I guess he was also convincing himself at that time that the decision was right… and had taken refuge in the religious texts.
Gurugriha gaye padhan raghurayi, Alp Kaal sab vidya aayi.
(Lord Ram was sent to Guru’s Ashram to obtain education and was a fairly quick learner.)
The quotes used in this article, marked in blue, are from ( Is boarding school good for your child: Times of India )