Home away from home

Print edition : February 25, 2011

Students relax on the campus of Abhyasa International Residential Public School near Secunderabad late in the evening. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE boarding school made its appearance in India during the days of the British Raj. Most of these residential schools were located in the mountains on account of the good weather there. Fashioned on the British public school system, these institutions were known for their holistic learning experience, which included sports, culture and the arts.

Boarding schools such as Lawrence School, Sanawar, near Chandigarh; Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ootacamund, or Ooty (now Udhagamandalam); and Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, were started for the children of British soldiers and missionaries. Later, well-to-do Indians who lived on tea plantations or coffee estates, which did not have access to schools, began sending their children to these residential schools, some of which are over 150 years old.

In recent times, residential schools have sprouted across the country, mainly away from the cities. The idea is to give quality education in pleasant and peaceful surroundings in order to give children a healthy environment. The schools are usually built on vast expanses of land and have huge playgrounds and state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Many parents send their children to these international boarding schools for the quality of education and the experience they offer. Boarding schools are popular among non-resident Indians, who prefer to educate their children in their home country rather than in a foreign one.

Nisha Mehta, a mother of two who lives in Churchgate, Mumbai, says: It had become too much for my son. After school, he had to rush for tuition classes and then for swimming. He spent most of his time commuting from one place to another. I wanted him to enjoy school and have a better environment to study in. Four years ago, she enrolled her son in a school in Udhagamandalam; although the family members miss him, they believe they made the right choice.

Of course, there are plenty of good schools in Mumbai, but we believed he needed to be out of the city to truly enjoy school and his childhood. He comes back for every holiday, so we get to see him every few months. Or one of us goes to Ooty to meet him when there is a long break, says Nisha Mehta.

Boarding schools today do not fit the Dickensian descriptions of earlier times. Today, they are bright, cheerful places where children live in a clean and happy atmosphere. Parents can visit often, and the children can go home on weekends in some schools. Besides, the schools offer facilities that many city schools do not have: swimming, sports, theatre, trekking and voluntary work with non-governmental organisations.

To run a good residential school that keeps both parents and students happy requires an extremely capable staff. A unique feature of a residential school is the house parent. The house parent's main responsibility is to act as a parent to a child that is away from its parents.

Typically, a house parent looks after at least six children. It could be more in big schools. The house parents live and eat with the children they care for. Some of them also teach subjects during school hours, while others may be in charge of the administrative affairs of the school. A good house parent invariably has a deep influence on a child. In fact, parents say that the single most important aspect of a boarding school is the house parent.

For teachers, house parenting is a rewarding proposition. The school takes care of their board and lodging needs; in many cases education for their children is subsidised. Salaries are competitive too, so, on the whole it is a good professional opportunity.But parents will always be divided on the pros and cons of boarding schools. Says Radhika Gupta, a Mumbai resident: I would never send my child away. I believe that if they grow apart from their parents, things will never be the same. If there is a school half as good as these near my residence, I would prefer my children to go there than away. A parent who spent most of her school years in boarding school, says: It was one of the best times of my life. And my relationship with my parents is very good.

Several residential schools today offer international standard examinations as well as the Indian board examinations. This gives students a good choice.

A Special Correspondent

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