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Sending Your Child to Boarding School

Boarding school is a very British tradition. To some people it is considered arcane; however, it is a facet of British education that, even in an era of recession and social change, endures.

When my eldest child began boarding school at age 14, people were shocked. Judging by their responses, you would have thought that I had elected to feed her only sugar, or decided never to let her smile again. Questions such as "Won’t you miss her?" or "Why would you send her away?" when you are already desperately missing your child, can be challenging to respond to in a measured fashion. 

She wanted to attend boarding school, and we only agreed once we felt she was old enough. We didn’t take the decision lightly. In addition to the emotional aspects of sending our child to another country for school, we also had to consider the financing side of a boarding school education. The cost of a UK boarding school can top QR 160,000 a year (yes really that amount of zeros!). A significant expense that meant we had to make sacrifices in other aspects of our lives.

The popularity of the British education system in Qatar

The British education system as a whole holds wide appeal in Qatar. Why it is quite so popular is steeped in a mixture of history and population, oil and gas exploration and development, and country ties from bygone eras as well as present day affiliations.

The global opportunities opened up by an ability to speak fluent English continues to be the overriding benefit cited by parents who don’t speak English as a first language but choose a British curriculum school for their child. However, the enthusiasm for the British curriculum goes further than that. Jonathon Dey, principal and CEO of GEMS Wellington School in Wakra, considers that the great benefit of the British national curriculum, if you are moving around the world, is that it is one of the most internationally transferable education systems for expats. Because it is a national curriculum, parents can easily know what is being covered and can judge progression. It is also accompanied by a standard set of internationally recognised transferable results. Dey also feels that it still has a strong reputation. Despite the recent domestic in-fighting within the British education system, and some could-do-better results in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the UK is still known for its strengths in education including early learning through play and its encouragement of comprehension and creative thinking.

Boarding schools versus schools in Qatar

There is a range of British curriculum schools to choose between in Qatar, from established institutions like Doha College, Doha English Speaking School and Parkhouse to the new kids on the block such as GEMS Wellington School and Pearling Season International School. With all this choice in Qatar, why would you send your child to boarding school?

Despite the range on offer, some parents still struggle to find a place for their child. Waiting lists can be long, and some parents feel they are settling if they don’t get their child into their first-choice school. Sara Sparling, education consultant with Sue Anderson Consultants, an education consultancy group that helps expat families select boarding schools, remarked that stability in education is the main incentive for parents who choose to send their children to boarding school. Boarding schools are also considered a stepping stone to British universities and a way to temper culture shock for students starting university who had never fully experienced British culture or been away from their parents. 

Sparling also mentioned that some families choose boarding school in order to qualify for ‘home status’, which enables British citizens to pay lower university fees rather than the sometimes exorbitant overseas fees. Additionally, when the school day in Qatar finishes at 1:30 pm, keeping a teenage child occupied in something productive for the rest of the day can be challenging when both parents work. "Boarding life offers a whole new dimension. It is not just about grades; British schools can offer depth and experiences," observed Sparling. Children who are particularly adept in sports or music or other activities can follow their passion at boarding school as facilities are on site; although Sparling noted that by doing this, some children came to realise the hard way that these activities can be much more competitive outside of Qatar.

For children who require learning support, boarding schools can often offer support that may not be as available at schools in Qatar. There are some mainstream boarding schools with strong learning support departments and other schools that, due to small class sizes, can be flexible in their approach.

In our family, we have had many discussions about our children’s sense of belonging. There has been a mountain of literature written about third culture kids (TCKs)—children raised in a culture outside that of their parents. We became aware of the fact that our children had a limited knowledge of their own culture and we were worried about them feeling rootless as they grew older. So this too became a factor in our choice for the last five years of my eldest’s education. 

For me, it was important that my daughter was no further than six to seven hours away and that is why many parents in the region opt for UK boarding schools rather than US or Australia. Most schools have two-week half terms and four-week holidays in December and March/April, so I consoled myself with the fact that my daughter will only ever be away from me for a maximum six-week block (unless I pop back to see her in term-time—which I did!). According to Sparling, this can encourage stronger relationships between parents and children as they appreciate time with one another.

For Sarah Bennett, her husband’s job meant that they moved often and boarding school was the only way his employer would pay for private education. Both she and her husband had boarded in the UK, her husband from age eight and Sarah from fourteen, so they were already familiar with a boarding school culture before they sent their children. Similarly, Clare Birch, whose husband works in the oil industry without a fixed-term contract, worried about her son changing schools during his exam years. So despite the fact that neither she nor her husband had boarded as children, they opted to send their son to boarding school.

Other than continuity, Bennett also appreciated that her children no longer had to spend hours in the car every day now that all their activities are already at school. For Birch, it was a combination of the impressive profiles of the teachers, strong and varied sports on offer, and a wide range of subjects on offer (including Latin and Classical Civilisations). "I also wanted him to experience the real world—walking into town, walking to the cinema and also being aware of the dangers."

However, there are plenty of pitfalls of which to wary. In our case, we made the particular mistake of choosing a school where a large number of students were only weekly boarders and went home at weekends, leaving our daughter and a much smaller group of students at the school. Bennett specifically avoided this type of situation. "We only looked at schools that were 100% boarding. We made sure they were all in the same boat as it becomes their home during the term,’ she said. 

Also, of course, there is homesickness, on your part as well as your child's. Generally, if my daughter is happy, I am happy, and when she’s homesick or upset, then I am too. They always say it is harder to be the one left behind, and in many ways that is true as my daughter is so busy sometimes that I don’t hear from her as often as I would like. However, in the age of Whatsapp, Skype and Facetime, it is easy to keep in touch and housemasters and housemistresses today are very adept at keeping you informed. 

Child readiness

While there isn’t one personality type that fits all, Sparling remarked that academic ability and the personality of the child are key to finding the right school for your child. She said, "A shy, quiet, retiring child will be lost in a huge school of 1000 students."

Birch said that she felt that being capable academically and good at a sport can be an advantage as it helps your child become part of all activities and they are less likely to feel out of his or her depth.

For my daughter, being away from my husband and I means she has to learn how to do things for herself, thus preparing her for when she is older. According to her, this is the best and hardest thing about boarding school.

Birch knew they had made the right choice when three weeks after her son started, her husband went to visit, and her son got in the car and smiled and said, “I really like this school.”

Five key questions to consider before sending your child to boarding school:

  1. Is this a full boarding school or are most of the students weekly boarders?
  2. Will I be able to continue to pay the school fees if our circumstances change?
  3. Is my child fully engaged with the idea?
  4. Does the school fit his or her personality?
  5. Am I prepared to deal with a rocky settling in period?

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