Then and now – boarding school changes

At the end of the year one of our support staff, Bush, retired after nearly half a century of service to our school. In 1971 he was originally employed as a waiter in the dining hall. Yes a waiter. Tables were laid up before the meal and each student had an allocated table. Breakfast would unfailingly and solely consist of porridge except if it was the weekly turn of your table for toast that day. Due to the toast scarcity Bush was able to make a profitable side-line selling contraband slices, a necessity when your wages were around R20 a month. His day would finish around 9:30 in the evening after serving supper to the Housemasters in the staff room.

Bush (see his farewell here) will have seen and experienced many changes during his time working in a boarding school for nearly half a century. I think for me though, the pace of change has accelerated particularly in the last 20 plus years or so. When I arrived in Africa in 1994 I had not sent an e-mail or made a call on a mobile phone.

It is hard to imagine life today without mobile phones or e-mails although some of our older staff make a good effort to do just that. For the students, e-mail is the least preferred method of communication. Why go to the bother when you can (in rough chronological order) SMS, Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat all from the convenience of your own mobile phone. Owning and using a phone 24/7 is natural to teenagers and to deprive an adolescent of Wi-Fi or data is like restricting their oxygen supply.


Cyberspace as opposed to outdoor space seems to be the environment of choice

These changes have had a huge impact on attending a boarding school. Several of long serving teachers remember that students used to have to obtain a permission slip to call home, which allowed them to join the weekly queue for the payphone. They did not have long once they were there, nor could they talk freely. Telling Mum how you miss her hugs and hate your dorm mates is difficult to do when there is an impatient, and clearly unsympathetic, line behind you.

Today of course, communication is available constantly and instantly. Ten years ago a colleague of mine had an altercation in his classroom with a pupil. As the lesson neared its end he realised that the issue might end up on the headmaster’s desk and so immediately the bell rang the teacher made his way across the quadrangle to inform him. Before he was even halfway across he was called by the head to be informed that a parent had made a complaint about him. It transpired that the student while still in class had texted his father who in turn had contacted the school all before the end of the period.

This freely available contact with home has led to increased accountability for boarding schools and higher expectations on the staff who work in them. Many colleagues speak of how much more staff are involved in the lives of their charges now, with a much greater awareness of the need for pastoral care than 20 years ago. This accountability has without doubt been good and much needed. Boarding schools are much kinder and caring places than they used to be. However it has come with a cost for the teachers that work in them. Staff from a wide array of boarding schools talk of how the incrementally increased pressure and expectations have built up to a point where the demands of the job take their toll both physically and mentally.

‘Free Bounds’ from the London Illustrated News July 5th 1958

The one day of the week where there is usually the chance for some downtime is Sunday. In the school where I work students used to be encouraged (forced) to leave the vicinity of the school from the hours of 10am until 4pm to roam the nearby countryside, by all accounts every boy had a bicycle at school for this express purpose. Called ‘Free Bounds’, one can only imagine what actually happened during this time. Today though, it is an effort to get the students to leave their dorms let alone the premises. Cyber space rather than outdoor space seems to be the environment of choice. With the rise of technology this has led to the phenomenon of what, in our school at least, is called ‘moleing’. This involves burying under ones duvet, preferably on an overcast day, to consume an entire series or as close as possible, on a lap top. ‘Riverdale’ and ‘GOT’ are just a small sample of the almost endless supply of available fare.

To help occupy free time the school still does run clubs and societies, but these are on a much reduced scale to what they were. The Venture Club used to have a waiting list of eager boys keen to explore the South African bushveld. Nowadays however it struggles to get enough participants to make outings viable. The Board Games Society and Natural History Society are, well, history. There was even a Gun Club; I still have the tie that its members used to wear. Today though the closest we get to a gun club are the virtual ‘first person shooter games’ the students play. ‘Gaming’ is now a verb and a preferred leisure activity. In free afternoons and in the evenings between (hopefully) prep sessions, ‘FIFA’ or ‘Call of Duty’ (among others) are often being played.

Such is the enthusiasm that these games invoke that for one popular franchise some years ago; the students designed and programmed the entire school building into the game as a backdrop option for battles. I have head of boys adapting the latest FIFA offering so that it included the entire school soccer team, complete with pictures, player profiles and ratings. I can’t imagine this happening even two decades ago. Both of these initiatives require creativity, ingenuity skill and no small amount of effort. Whoever said boys don’t like to work?

Bush retires after 46 years of service

Of course it would be wrong to conclude without mentioning that old staple of boarding school conversation, food. I think Bush would agree that what is available today is unrecognisable to the fairly stolid offerings of a few decades ago. They might not be waited on but each day a menu is published and the students get to choose between vegetarian and other options along with the extra cold meats, salads and fruits that are made available. Of course this does not stop the students complaining, sometime vehemently, about the food. Perhaps that is one thing about boarding school life that will never change.

This blog was orginally published as Boarding school changes in 2015 at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s