Board Not Bored

  • [Tuesday] 28th Oct,2014
  • in ericlin
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How the growing popularity of boarding schools is changing education

by Celia Thaysen

More and more schools, including international schools, are opening up in and around Shanghai that offer boarding facilities. While not common for Chinese families to send their children to boarding school, it appears that times are changing.

For Emely Spagni, mother toWellington College International School (WCIS) Year 7 student Gioia Serena Wang, choosing the boarding school option was a hard decision to make at first. “I am Italian and traditionally Italian mums do not send their 11-year-old kids to boarding school. We keep our children close, at home, until they are at least 30 years old!” But already, after just three weeks, Spagni has no regrets about the decision.

Vice Principal Sue Su of Pinghe School, which takes 1,300 Chinese boarders from the ages of 6 to 17, gives three reasons for sending children to board. “1) parents are too busy to take good care of their children, 2) the students live too far away from the school and it is time-consuming to do the commute on a daily basis, considering the traffic in Shanghai, and 3) parents want to cultivate independence in their children by having them board.”

Su’s assessment seems to be largely borne out by the parents interviewed. Spagni explains that she “really wanted to spare my daughter the two-and-a-half hours of commute she had to endure daily during her primary school years”, while for Wendy Wong, mother of another WCIS Year 7 student Jaspar Gao, the reasons were threefold: to train his independence, the impossibility of commuting from Ningbo, and having ”more confidence in the British boarding system due to its long history”.

At YK Pao, the majority of the 430 boarders in the Secondary Division are from local Chinese families, as well as some from other areas like Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shenyang, and Chengdu, with a handful from Hong Kong, Malaysia and other countries.

Lachlan McGibney is a Year 7 boarder atYK Pao, sharing a dorm with three others. He’s one of the few non-native Chinese boarders but speaks fluent Mandarin. It was Lachlan who suggested the idea of boarding as he wanted “to sleep at the school with all my friends” and had to convince his mother Anne-Marie McCaughan that it was a good idea. Says McCaughan, “I was also very conscious that he had untapped potential and I wasn’t stretching him enough.”

Now in his second year, Lachlan is more self-composed and energized. “I’ve seen this incredible maturity and independence,” notes his mom. The one thing she feels he may be missing out on is “an element of unscheduled free time”. For Lachlan, the best thing is he is “not bored” although he’s not keen on the 6am wake-up.

Boarding school “instills self-discipline in all areas of the pupils’ life - from completing their school work on time, to planning their extracurricular activities and even organizing their laundry!” says Adam Shaw, Head of Boarding at WCIS in explaining the advantages. “Above all, boarding develops a sense of camaraderie, understanding and compassion for others.”

“Above all, boarding develops a sense of camaraderie, 
understanding and compassion for others.”

However, some new boarders do get homesick. At Pinghe School, they see (understandably) the first graders get most homesick. “The staff usually eases the situation by playing games with them [the children], doing reading and pairing the little ones up, so they don’t feel alone,” explains Su.

However, Andrew Hamilton, Director of Student Life at YK Pao School’s Secondary Division observes that as the majority of their students come from one-child families, for most of the students, it will be the first time they have ever shared a room before – and this is the biggest adjustment.

And it’s the small things that count. Shaw adds, “For example, we accept that girls take a little longer drying their hair in the evenings. This may sound trivial, but we use our experience to appreciate the needs of the boarders and create an environment where they feel comfortable.”

Hamilton sees his role as caring for students “as if they were our own children. We look after their health, well-being, and safety. It also means taking on difficult issues like setting rules for discipline, praise, rewards, and consequences.”

Chinese families are also sending their children overseas to boarding schools. Annie Lundahl, marketing director for The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) in the US, is currently preparing for their annual Boarding School Admission Fair at the Pudong Shangri-La on October 30th to recruit Chinese students aged 10-17 to its 287 US member boarding schools. She believes boarding school is primarily attractive to Chinese students because it offers English immersion and a better chance to enroll at a top US or Canadian university. Lundahl stresses the tuition fees are high, but also notes the diversity of boarding options available, from co-ed or single sex to military and pre-professional arts.

According to TABS’ research study “The Truth About Boarding Schools,” 78% of boarding school graduates say they were very well prepared for the non-academic aspects of college life such as independence, social life and time management, compared with 36% of private day and 23% of public school students.

Boarding gives students unique opportunities for whole-child education and self-discovery, as well as a wider familial base. With more boarding schools opening up here, it will be interesting to chart their progress and see whether more expat families will sign up their children too.