Family Health

They're gaining new popularity, but are boarding schools a prison or a paradise?

In an age where equality is so widely extolled, private education is thriving and most private schools in the Dublin area are over-subscribed. With the return of economic prosperity (apparently), parents don’t baulk at paying ¤6,000 or ¤7,000 annually for their cherished offspring to attend Alexandra or Gonzaga College.

Boarding schools are concomitantly more expensive. The sprog sent to St Columba’s costs €22,800 annually: Clongowes charges €19,890 and Glenstal Abbey €19,300. And there’s no shortage of customers willing to stump up these fees from taxed income – probably a bargain compared to British school fees, where it’s £34,302 to send a lad to Eton and £32,490 to send a lass or lad to Marlborough – Kate Middleton’s old school. The unspoken truth is that a private education is still one of the assured routes to success in life.

Boarding school has been described as a form of child abandonment and the “misery memoir” of boarding school life is an entire genre of literature, from Antonia White’s Frost in May to Louis MacNeice’s The Strings are False. Ghastly experiences are described: boys subjected to “mass caning”, sexual humiliation and rule by oligarchy: girls scapegoated, manipulated and repressed by sadistic nuns or spiteful, embittered lay teachers.

Yet there’s another genre of boarding-school literature, depicting its glamour and friendship. This was more prevalent among girls, and stories by Angela Brazil, Elinor Brent-Dyer (the Chalet School series) and Enid Blyton (Malory Towers) burnished the image of boarding school life. These narratives depicted a closed society in which the girls more or less ruled, and where happiness was achieved when a new girl could finally say “I belong” (after she has served her time deferring to the in-group of more dominant seniors).

A study of English girls’ boarding schools between 1939 and 1979 (Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham) describes fairly accurately my own experience of a convent boarding school in Dublin, and my elder sister’s in Wicklow. Corridors were walked in single file and silence. Letters home were censored – girls were told it would cause their parents pain if they said they were unhappy. Unsuitable books were confiscated. Deportment and elocution were vital – the parents expected their offspring to be equipped with the right “accent”.

Boarding-school girls on promenade had to walk two by two, and acquiring a walking partner was a big deal. At Cheltenham Ladies College, those who didn’t have a walking partner had to “tag” – be the third girl alongside a pair, who often shunned her. (One poor girl had very bad acne and always had to “tag”.)

Letters and parcels from home were important, and those who didn’t get mail lost status. Until the late 1950s, parental visits were discouraged: my sister complained our parents scarcely visited her at Dominican, Wicklow.

There was always bullying, bitchiness and scapegoating, well before social media. But pupils were expected to “stand up for themselves” and if they were distressed (by the loss of a parent, or even a pet) were told “don’t bore others with your emotions”. The women who founded girls’ schools – including pioneering nuns like Mary Ward, Sr Madeleine Sophie Barat and Mother Cornelia Connelly – believed that girls’ education should fit them to be intellectual equals with boys – and thus schools had to be harsh to fit women to compete in a man’s world. “Chin up, Doreen!” was the catchword if a pupil seemed depressed.

Boarding schools today are totally different. Websites emphasise child protection, policies about bullying, sensitive attitudes to sexuality and relationships and care and concern for the young person’s well-being. King’s Hospital school in Dublin (Leo Varadkar’s alma mater) accommodates boarders full-time, or on a five-day basis (€16,795 seven-day boarding, €14,890 for five-day). Having been investigated for bullying and intimidation, and a charge of sexual assault by a group of boys, the school has doubled up on its child protection policies. Its new headmaster, Mark Ronan, puts a special emphasis on mental health and supporting students with anxiety. This would have been called “coddling” in previous boarding school lore. Anyone inclined to “blub” at Malory Towers would be told, “Don’t be a goose, Felicity!”

However, the new, caring approach is working well, if judged by market success. And parents today are customers who want value for money: they don’t necessarily defer to the authority of an institution.

The revival of the boarding school is ascribed to a number of developments, including families moving around more because of their jobs, and modern communications softening the effect of separation. My grandchildren think boarding school must be wonderful, but that is down to one factor only: Hogwarts. Maybe Harry Potter has, single-handedly, re-branded boarding school for a new generation.

Mary will be in conversation with Ciana Campbell at a Literary Lunch at the Ennis Book Club Festival on Sunday, March 3. See

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