Matt Kiely, Director of Boarding at TASIS England – which recently won ISA Boarding School of the Year – reflects on what makes a great boarding experience

Every now and again I have the pleasure of meeting with boarding alumni, some of whom were boarding at the school before I was born. I very much enjoy listening to the stories of their time at the school and how things used to be in the good old days. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they never seem to mention the quality education that they received here over a number of years, but they do take great delight in reminiscing about the homely chaos of twenty students sharing a dorm, battling cold showers in the depths of winter, also recounting various tales of clandestine midnight mischief.

Times have changed. Legislative standards are constantly being raised under the umbrella of safeguarding and schools are increasingly on the lookout for an edge within a competitive market. This has led to increasingly fanciful facilities and promises of blankets of smothering support whenever a child displays a hint of emotion. I feel sorry for those students opting into some new build boarding facilities, which appear to have all the ambience of a Travelodge. They are missing out on the essence of a great boarding experience – communal living and shared experiences.

Brilliant boarding memories come from shared experiences and friendships made for life in a communal living setting, says TASIS’ Matt Kiely

Yes, a dorm needs to be clean, safe and comfortable, but an espresso machine isn’t going to one day be the best man at your wedding. Yes, a boarding programme needs to be well organised and administered, but spreadsheets don’t make you laugh until you cry (unless you’re a bursar). Yes, we need to make sure that safeguarding of students is a priority but keeping them under constant lock and key is akin to keeping a lion cub in a cage before releasing her and expecting her to have accumulated the necessary skills to survive in the wild. The best boarding schools find a balance between risk and experience in order for young people to flourish both within school and on into their adult lives.

Communal living creates memories. Investing time and resources in social events, trips and fun activities is vital and young people will deposit those memories into a bank that they can draw upon for a whole lifetime. Communal living also creates problems for young people to work through – this is as important as what they learn within the classroom.

“The best boarding schools find a balance between risk and experience in order for young people to flourish both within school and on into their adult lives”

Ensuring that our boarding students are able to develop independence and resilience within a highly legislated environment is complicated. We want students to learn how to manage their own wellbeing and problem-solve for themselves. This sometimes requires a lighter touch than metaphorically wiping their noses for them at the first sign of a sniffle. Ultimately, we want our boarding students to be happy, successful and to leave us with a sense of belonging, so that one day they will be the ones returning to campus and reminiscing for all the right reasons.

My favourite day of the TASIS England school year is senior graduation, and that’s not just because it’s the final hurdle before an epic summer holiday. It’s special because so many of the students cry their eyes out – that’s because they are sad to be ending a significant chapter in their young lives. Communal living ensures that this chapter is not a grey monologue, but a creative collage of shared experiences. We, as boarding schools, must never lose that sense of shared belonging – it lies at the heart of what we are and what we provide for our young people.

TASIS England

Further reading: Sibford School on cool co-learning for sixth formers