The big debate: the pros and cons of boarding school: part two

St Ignatius Catholic School recently celebrated the success of one of its students, Stuart Jennings, who was awarded a place at Oxford University this year (a first for the school) after a stellar performance in his A-levels.

This tremendous achievement has focused the spotlight on the age-old discussion of whether to keep youngsters in Cayman for their high school education or send them to boarding school abroad. The Journal assesses whether there is still a need in Cayman to break up the family and send children overseas for their education. In this second part in the series we look at reasons why parents still choose to send their children abroad for their education.

Last month we looked at the growth in secondary education in Cayman in recent years and the plethora of opportunities for students to pursue their high school education on island. And yet many youngsters are still sent abroad to study from often a very early age.

The highs and lows

Two ex-boarders give some perspective to the subject. Betsy Drummond was sent to boarding school in England at the age of 9, joining her older sister, Kathy, at St Francis College in Letchworth. She says that boarding school was quite a common eventuality for the expat children of English parents situated in the Caribbean during the Seventies and Eighties.

“It was often a ‘perk’ built into the contracts of the dads subject to secondment or international transfers,” she explains.

Betsy remembers the highs and lows of boarding school life: “At the time I thought there were a lot of negative aspects: the cold, the wet, being away from home, as well as very limited finances and a deficient wardrobe. We were in house teams with lots of duty rosters to participate in – serving meals, washing up, tidying common rooms, cleaning the dining room, folding the laundry and so on.”

But Betsy also remembers the good things about life away from home: “Despite being a boarding school there was a lot of independence associated with travelling alone to and from Cayman/England, as well as trips to my sister, friend’s or Granny’s in London. I did get a first class education and was academically ambitious which was rewarded. I made a select few enduring friendships.”

Her sister, Kathy Jackson says that the best part was most definitely the independence that they achieved, that “and the exposure to other cultures; learning to live peacefully with ‘strangers’ who quickly became family, as well as the rigour that came with routine, study hall, music practice and so on which imposed self reliance and encouraged a discipline. While we rallied against it at the time, it is something which I sometimes struggle to give my own kids. They say it is easier to take the hard right with other people’s children than with your own!” she says.

That said, Betsy says she would not send her children away. “Apart from the fact that it’s expensive, I enjoy helping them grow up. I want a close relationship with them as they will be gone soon enough. I am happy with the education that they are receiving locally and what they miss in extended curriculums and beautiful campuses and multicultural student bodies, I can compensate (to some extent) with family trips where we experience news and firsts together.”

Betsy says her children travel alone and are encouraged to make independent plans and execute them. “I try hard to (sometimes) stand back and allow them to fail and sometimes make their own ill conceived decisions to learn from,” she states.

Building self-confidence

There are a good many parents on island who still today decide to send their children overseas for their education. One parent explains why they sent their youngsters to boarding school at the age of 11:

“We thought it would give them a more global perspective on the world than being schooled exclusively in Cayman. At the time we were on work permits, and it would have been crazy just to rely on Cayman to take them right through secondary education.”

They confirm that it can be more difficult for the parents than for the children. “I sometimes think that parents hide their own dread of sending kids away by going on about how cruel, unnatural etc it is.”

They were fortunate in that their children quickly settled into boarding school life, as did the parents themselves and says that the most difficult aspect for their children with regard to boarding school life was the socialising and little cliques that girls form, however they say: “This was nothing they couldn’t sort out, though. The worst thing for us as parents was missing them for a while.”

The benefits that the children are deriving from their studies abroad are manifold, according to the parent: “Self-confidence. Ability to get on with almost everyone. An appreciation of the outside world and that life doesn’t start and end in Cayman. But still retaining an abiding love for Cayman, which after all is home,” they say.

They add that, in a narrow sense they could quite possibly have received just as good an education if they had remained in Cayman.

“But we wanted them to get a wider perspective and have a broader range of opportunities than schools here can offer, for example cultural, etc.”

They say they would recommend boarding school to parents considering the move for their child as it has the potential to turn youngsters into fully socialised young men and women. However they add a word of warning:

“Choose your school carefully to suit your child, and beware snob appeal, particularly to parents who did not themselves go through the system. You tend to find they are the ones who instinctively send their kids to the ‘fashionable’ school of the moment, without necessarily thinking of what suits them.”

Greater exposure

Mum of four Sharon Galloway says she and her husband Andrew sent their daughter Libby to boarding school because they wanted her to be exposed to a wider world. 

“My husband and I both went to boarding school and enjoyed it so thought our children would also have a lot to gain from the experience too. I also wanted her to have a sense of being, of where her family came from,” she confirms.

Libby was 10 when she went to the UK for schooling. “I wanted her to go to prep school which is a much gentler start to school life away from home,” Mrs Galloway says and confirms that the decision was not easy. “It was a very difficult choice; I hate not having her here every day and her being so far away.”

Even so, Libby settled in surprisingly well. “The first half term took a bit of settling in but after that she loved it,” Mrs Galloway says. “I found it very hard but the decision was made for her, not for me.”

The hardest aspect of life in boarding school for Libby was missing home and friends for her, Mrs Galloway states. “For me, it was not knowing her teachers, friends or their parents. It made her feel even further away not knowing the people she was talking about and mixing with. As she has lived all her life in Cayman every new step here has been taken with those we knew, this was definitely a leap into the unknown.  Luckily we now have email and websites so communication is so much easier than when I was at school. The schools are also very different and encourage a greater input from parents,” she says.

The Galloways believe that children gain an increase in independence and self confidence from being schooled overseas.

“Academically Libby has been exposed to a wider curriculum and has had the opportunity to participate in a number of different extracurricular activities,” Mrs Galloway says.

That said, she acknowledges that boarding school might not be the right move for all families. “Every family is different and must do what they feel is right for them,” she confirms. 

Do what suits the child

Another mum of four, Fiona Pimentel says she and husband Carlos decided to send their son to school in the UK primarily because he asked to go.
“He wanted to do his important exams in his country of origin,” Mrs Pimentel says.

Edward was thirteen when he first went to boarding school, “which we felt was a reasonable age to go. We would not have sent him any earlier,” Mrs Pimentel confirms.

“It was a difficult decision to make because we wanted our son to be with us, but we felt that more opportunities would be available to him at a boarding school in the UK,” she adds.

Edward settled in very quickly, as the school they chose is a very welcoming, happy school, she says. “The anticipation was the hardest part for us, as parents. However, once we saw how well the school had organised the welcoming of newcomers, we were confident that we were leaving him in good hands.”

Mrs Pimentel says that Edward does miss his parents and siblings, but they speak often on the phone, and he regularly goes out for weekends to his grandparents.

“Although he would have received a very good education in Cayman, we believe he has a broader education back in the UK, in terms of extra curricular activities, better facilities and a wider pool of people to get to know,” she states.

Mrs Pimentel sums up the dilemma of where to educate youngsters succinctly:

“Selecting a school is a very big decision for parents. We all have a slightly different way of prioritising the criteria for choosing a school, such as academics, religion, family tradition, sports, the arts, location of school etc. It is important to find the school that suits the child and the family as a whole, whether that is in Cayman or elsewhere.”