Fool on the Hill

Written By: The Lowdown - Apr• 30•13

FOTHIn an attempt to be glib, when asked if I went to boarding school as a child I would always reply “No, my parents loved me”. Inverted snobbery played a part in this answer but mostly it was a defence mechanism because although I started my school life, in Hong Kong as the son of a father wealthy enough to send me to a good private day school and a mother who did not believe in boarding schools, by the time I was 11, we were broke and separated. We traded in the apartment in Pokfulam and the “his” and “hers” sports cars for a rented flat above a travel agents in Croydon and a free, comprehensive school that was all we could afford; and we got the education we paid for. Luckily we moved before I lost all grip on academics and I was fortunate enough to end up at a state grammar school that was morphing into a Sixth Form college and had high academic and sporting standards, old fashioned discipline and masters who still wore gowns and worked hard to send the kids onwards with good educations.


Some years later and I am blessed to live in Zambia and be raising three small boys, and have hopefully learned enough from the mistakes of my parents to want more for our kids than they could manage for my sister and me. I have a wife who won’t let me buy us sports cars, which is a good start. Much as we would love to keep our boys close by until they are ready to take on the world we recognise our shortcomings as disciplinarians, sporting mentors and role models, and the limitations for teenagers who are not focused on riding, motocross, soccer or swimming which seem to be the only wholesome pursuits with enough organised activities to distract them from behaving like young adults when they hit adolescence in Lusaka. There are plenty of good schools here and the results at graduation from the school they are at reflect the high standards that can be achieved. But all kids are different and whereas two of our three would probably do fine at our chosen school here, all three will certainly do better with more structure and encouragement (read compulsory attendance) in team sports, drama and music, and outreach programmes.


This is a terrible confession of failure I suppose, to say that a bunch of paid strangers can give my kids a better childhood than I can. However to fill their lives with as many levels of skilled tuition in as many wonderfully diverse opportunities as you can buy at a good boarding school I would have to become something of a super-hero and be accomplished enough at half a dozen sports to coach them and committed enough to involve myself and to drive my kids to achieve in junior cricket, rugby, soccer, tennis and swimming leagues … just for starters. Then I would have to teach myself to read music and master piano, strings, percussion and woodwind instruments and tutor them in these as well as voice and drama. Obviously I would need to up my game considerably in the academic stakes to provide back-up in ten or more subjects so that I could plug any gaps in the knowledge they’ll be provided at school. Finally I would also fill what is left of their weekends after sports fixtures, with camping trips, mountain biking excursions, surfing, archery, debating, scuba diving and community support projects. All this in addition to the better than average, but less than a bargain, education they are already receiving. I know, unlike most of you, I am not up to the job and so we are considering seriously boarding school for the senior years.


Financially this is an horrific commitment that, for the next 18 years, will maintain a steady haemorrhage on our finances. But what better inheritance can you bestow on your children than the finest education that money and circumstances allow? A fat bank account, a property portfolio and a couple of sports cars ……… my kids would argue.

We are, by virtue of where we live, destined to pay for private education and the fact is that South Africa offers some of the highest standards in schools with academic records and facilities equal to or better than, and as steeped in tradition as, any of the flagship British or American schools that have long been the benchmark of educational excellence. And they are less than half the price and a mere two hour plane ride away. Even if you add in the boarding fees and all the travel costs, the most prestigious and expensive of these is only some 60% more than what we would be paying in Lusaka for secondary education as a day scholar. Offset the local transport, drive time, homework time, and the endless train of Shoprite trolleys required to keep the buggers fed and watered (which will become largely the responsibility of the school) and you’ll spend only about 25% more than you would if they were at day school in Lusaka.


As you might have guessed there is a fair amount of self-indoctrination going on here as the bottom line is, I would rather keep my kids beside me. But they are gagging to go; somehow and why-for I know not, believing that boarding school is one big, extended slumber party. Having just returned from a five day, whirlwind tour of South African preparatory and high schools I have to say that I am delighted that they are keen, though it will be me putting on a brave face every time they head off to school. But, it will be worth it to have returned to us at each term’s end, young men who look adults in the eye, shake their hands firmly and call them “Sir” or “Ma’am”. Who play team sports to win as gentlemen regardless, whether they are in the A or the D side, and have learned the important life lessons of competitive teamsmanship. Boys who may not be natural academics but who will have been pushed to learn through the most appropriate (visual, auditory or kinaesthetic) teaching to be the best that they can be, rather than encouraged to rejoice in the easy and more comfortable territory of adequacy. Boys who will hopefully appreciate their good fortune in returning home to a wonderful country and a charmed life each holiday, endowed with the privilege of a fine, structured and well-rounded education and all the opportunities this will afford them. Even if this means that they don’t get to slob around on the sofa watching Disney DX channel every day and they are collected from the airport in a 1998 pick-up truck and not a Porsche 911.


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