Choosing a boarding prep school – in Scotland!
Innes MacAskill, Headmaster of Belhaven Hill School, Dunbar, Scotland
Choosing an appropriate school for your child is always a daunting prospect that every parent faces at one time or another, especially when considering the option of boarding. However, if you are in the Forces and based abroad, this problem is further exacerbated by the worries and practicalities related to sending one’s child so far away, often to another country.
There is much one can say to allay such fears with regard to the modern boarding prep school, which has certainly enjoyed a bout of ‘Hogwarts’ popularity since the ‘Harry Potter’ films; many children now envisage boarding as a ‘magical’ time spent with friends while enjoying many adventures. In today’s modern boarding school this is nearer the truth than one might imagine and the friendships that boarding pupils make can, and often do, last a lifetime.
However, today’s boarding schools are not ‘Hogwarts’ and, in sorting out myth from reality, it is important to remember that they serve an important purpose, especially for those who find themselves living a life where the stability of home life is not guaranteed. Moving every two years or so can mean that your child’s education is constantly disrupted and with it the chance of forming meaningful relationships with either children or staff.
Whatever the reason that parents embark on the boarding route there is no doubt that such schools are much changed from how they were often portrayed in popular culture 30 or so years ago. The cold baths, strict discipline, hard beds, lonely nights and lack of care are all things of the past.
A warm and supportive community
Nowadays one is met with bright, confident children, gainfully employed and perfectly at ease in the company of their peers and adults. Good teaching in small classes with staff who offer excellent pastoral care mean that pupils are allowed to grow and flourish in a warm and supportive community.
There are many good boarding prep schools and although the majority have adapted to weekly or flexi boarding to meet demand and the needs of parents in their local area, there are still ‘traditional’ schools that offer full boarding which at the weekends are awash with busy, happy and contented children making the most of the opportunities on offer – not least in enjoying the company of their fellow boarders.
There is much to be said for schooling in Scotland. Much of the country is well served by airports, such as Glasgow, Aberdeen or Edinburgh, there are ample railway and motorway connections, and there is a tradition of boarding that has not been as readily eroded as in some areas of the south. One of the greatest attractions is the ‘traditional’ style of schooling.
Scottish prep schools are normally smaller in size, resulting in many more children enjoying the opportunity of playing in teams, singing in choirs, acting on stage and being given more responsibility than is possible in some larger schools, while there is still an emphasis on ‘traditional’ values, such as everyday courtesy, manners and service.
The pace of life is a little ‘slower’ than in some other schools, with an emphasis on the individual and the belief in opportunities outside the classroom. There is not the need to grow up too quickly, nor are they as ‘streetwise’ as some, while the need for mobile telephones or electronic gadgetry and games is not seen as essential as elsewhere. Pupils can of course communicate with parents and friends by phone, e-mail or Skype – but it is not an overriding necessity that drives a child’s day.
Beauty and culture on the doorstep
Not least, Scotland is awash with beauty and culture on its doorstep. One is never far from some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, while a healthy outdoor life is often seen as a natural progression of everyday school life. Children are within touching distance of museums, theatres and sites of historical or cultural significance in thriving Scottish cities.
Belhaven Hill in Dunbar is only 45 minutes from the centre of Edinburgh, one of Europe’s most popular centres of culture. The school has a long and proud history, having been founded in 1923 as an all-boy boarding preparatory school. Now a co-educational boarding school, where 80% board full time, it has seen many recent developments to ensure its facilities are as one would expect; outside its back gate are a golf course, the beautiful Bass Rock and the sandy Belhaven Bay beach.
For the boarders there are ample common rooms and games available to play in their ‘free time’, while extra-curricular opportunities abound – from skiing, surfing, riding and golf, to drama, music and art, not to mention the traditional pursuits of reeling, gardening, model making and board games to mention a few! With scholarships won to the top senior schools in England and Scotland (approximately 70% of the school’s pupils head south), in fields as diverse as academia, music, art, sport and all-rounders, the school is proud of all that its pupils achieve.
However, more often than not the children are just as happy to play with their friends, enjoying each other’s company and friendship. Indeed, such is the children’s perception of boarding that many children believe that they are ‘missing out’ by not boarding and so many local children, who could easily be day pupils, elect to board.
Please feel free to get in touch with the school’s secretary if you would like further details (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the school website www.belhavenhill.com
Innes MacAskill is the Headmaster of Belhaven Hill School in Dunbar, Scotland. He and his wife, Sandy, have worked and lived all of their teaching life in boarding prep schools. Innes was formerly the Deputy Headmaster of Caldicott Prep School in Buckinghamshire, before moving to be Head of Beeston Hall in Norfolk for 11 years. He has been Headmaster of Belhaven Hill for the last five years.