I recently returned from an insightful trip to the northern states of Kedah, Perlis and Penang. This was part of our study on the strengths and weaknesses of an initiative created to help primary school children from underprivileged families by putting them into a hostel facility. We interviewed the children and parents who took part in that initiative.
On the drive up, my colleagues and I discussed the concept of boarding schools and their relevance towards parents and the education system as a whole. While I am not a parent, one of my colleagues is and he weighed in his thoughts and comments. Another colleague, who is a product of boarding school, shared with us his perspective on studying and living away from home. This got me thinking about the purposes of boarding schools and whether our education system actually needs them.
The conversations my colleagues and I had in the car faded off by the time we got back to KL. But had it not been for the report about the government’s desire to ’transform’ 118 boarding schools in Sarawak, I would not have written this piece. Apparently there are a staggering 598 boarding schools in Sarawak alone. Interestingly, the report also stated that there has been a decline in enrolment into Sarawak’s boarding schools and one of the main aims of this transformation project is to attract more students. My thoughts immediately turned to the motivations behind this emphasis on boarding schools. Is a boarding system really the answer to our education woes? I have my doubts.
All the parents we spoke to during our fieldtrip have high regard for boarding schools. Many turn to boarding schools out of economic necessity while others see them as providing better education and support in order for their children to excel academically. A majority of parents also see discipline in their child as important and believe that their children learn this from boarding schools.
These perspectives are indeed understandable. But they still do not make boarding schools essential to our education system. We need to look deeper to examine what is it about boarding schools that make them seem “better” in parents’ eyes. My colleagues and I have not conducted in-depth studies on this issue yet but I suspect that parents who aspire to send their children to boarding schools actually desire a school that can support their children well. The boarding experience may not be that important. Instead, the important ingredients might be routine things like autonomy, flexibility in curriculum and pedagogy, and teacher quality.
Investing in hundreds of boarding schools in Sarawak may be necessary due to geographical reasons. But can we actually generalise about the need for boarding schools throughout the country? The focus needs to be on quality education and choice in each and every school along with targeted aid for those who are economically disadvantaged. Creating a conducive environment where parents are able to balance their responsibilities to their children without having to send them off to hostels and full residential boarding schools could be better too.
There is also another issue that is rarely considered, which is the impact of boarding schools on the family institution. In our quest for academic excellence, is it justifiable for parents to hand over their parenting responsibilities to boarding schools and essentially, to the government?
While many may argue that all parents temporarily hand over nurturing responsibilities to schools daily, parents sending their child to a full-time boarding school seem to be absolving themselves from a huge chunk of parenting responsibilities. It could be argued that this is especially true of those who send their children to boarding schools at a very young age. These young children, at primary school age, do not get a chance to come home frequently – whatever the condition of their homes may be – and share their daily experiences with their family.
The children may be able to bond with their friends and supervisors at the residential schools, but they will miss the opportunity of building strong connections and relationships with their very own families and relatives. The impact that this may have on the family institution deserves more investigation.
The reality is, learning for a child does not only happen in school. And learning itself should be fun, especially for younger children. While fun learning does occur at school, interactions with friends, relatives and siblings outside of school can also provide a stimulating space to learn all sorts of skills including inter-personal communication to build relationships, creative thinking and problem solving.
Sadly, many parents from our studies, and especially those from low-income households, do not see such types of learning as an important factor. They believe the regimented environment of a boarding school is more valuable because they, most probably, prioritise exam results. But where is the fun in that for a 12 year old?