by Ian Hunt, Managing Director of Gabbitas Education
Being apart from children is one of the taboos of modern life. How could you possibly do it? But the reality for many parents is that they want to do the best thing for both the children and themselves, work and school.
For most expats the ideal is to find a local school, either with a basis of teaching English or even better the flexibility to ease children into a bilingual education. The image of children soaking up a new culture and language, making a cosmopolitan network of friends and life for themselves, is an enticing one. More often than not the integration is much harder than this. English children will be different – which can be a good thing, but not always; they might struggle to learn in an unfamiliar learning environment, whether there’s another language involved or not. And ultimately, school is their life, as much (if not more) than careers absorbs the parents, it’s even harder for them to come home and leave it all behind them.Ideally families want to be kept together, but if local schooling isn’t right, then important choices need to be made. Making do is not going to work. The days are gone when young people could get away with cruising through some years of education and make up for the gap later.
Sending children to a boarding school in the UK continues to be a successful option for many parents. Dealing with the guilt is a serious issue, but by taking an open approach with children, the leap can be well worth taking. Critically, a boarding school can be used as a solid base for parents who might be working in Singapore this year, Dubai next, the best kind of stability when the only other option is a trail of different temporary schools.
“How can a loving mother live away from her children? I find myself trying to answer the question but at the same time justify myself and my choices,” says Veronica Evans, based in Abu Dhabi, and who sent her two children to Llandovery College in Wales. “But when they meet my children and I explain my story, it is clear there is almost a quiet admiration, almost envy from some who secretly know it’s something they’d like to do, but are too afraid to do themselves.”
The first step is to understand what your children really want. Are they genuinely struggling with the local school or is it only a temporary blip. They need to be part of any conversations, how they feel about the prospect of boarding, of a long-distance relationship, and what that might mean on a practical level for holidays and day-to-day. Does the quality of their education mean that much to them? What matters most?
Even when a decision has been made together, the doubts will always be there.
“There have been rare times when I have put the phone down and questioned my decision. But the children are learning skills of how to cope, how to ride the waves and find strength from within. We now talk more in depth than we ever did about school and what they are up to. Almost immediately I could see the difference in them and I could most definitely see the difference in me,” Veronica adds.
Independent schools are communities in themselves, and so provide an ideal support for children away from their parents. There’s a common experience that leads to strong and supportive friendships, as well as a different basis for relationships with teachers, the chance for more trust and openness, less of the ‘us and them’ of standard schools. As a result, children are seen to become more independent and self-confident and the kinds of stand-out qualities that count for so much when the value of qualifications themselves appears to be falling.
Expat parents with children boarding in the UK need to play a huge ongoing role in their lives: always keeping in touch with what they’re doing, sports and plays and events, anticipating when there will be a need for a phone call for support, and most importantly making good use of every moment of time that is spent together.
“There is always the fear, like many other mothers, that I’m not doing enough. When I feel this I call them for a chat. I’m very quickly reminded from the tone of their voices, their busy lives, all their excitement about what this wonderful school is offering them. It’s then that I think there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do to keep them where they are,” says Veronica.
Ian Hunt is Managing Director of Gabbitas Education, experts in independent education since 1873. He was previously headmaster of Llandovery College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org