Are we sending children to boarding school too early?

Angella Ankunda, who took her now six-year-old daughter to boarding school when she was five, says in some cases, boarding school is a better option

What you need to know:

What is the right age for taking a child to boarding school? A survey by the Directorate of Education Standards revealed last year that most schools were operating boarding sections illegally. Are parents taking note of this?

Gloria Namukisa sent her daughter to boarding school while she was in Primary Two. She says she was forced to make this decision by the challenges in commuting to school daily. But Namukisa also reveals, that is a decision she was later to regret.
“I counselled her for several weeks before enrolling her; making her ready for the time I would not be around. I taught her how to wash her clothes, how to bathe, take care of her things, but also to psychologically prepare her to know that she will be responsible for most of her property. Most importantly I was encouraging her that everything would be fine,” she explains.
However, things did not go as Namukisa expected. “Within two weeks, the other children had stolen her key, and swept her suitcase clean. The only thing she remained with were her bed sheets and blanket,” she recalls.
But that was not all. “She came back a bit different. She would get nightmares and later told me that her fellow pupils told her that evil spirits come at night looking for children. She was also more selfish and did not want anyone to touch her belongings. This really got me rethinking my decision and what I needed to do,” she explains. Namukisa, a tailor, decided to move her tailoring shop to the neighbourhood she lived so that she could have her daughter in day school.
Boarding schools are becoming more common than they were in the recent past. Originally the most common boarding schools were secondary ones. Today, almost every primary school has a boarding section and some schools have made it compulsory for some classes.

“Growing up, my older siblings only joined boarding school in secondary school, and even then, my mother would remain worried that at Senior One they were still too young for boarding school. It was my father who always insisted on the move,” Faith Musinguzi, a parent, recalls.
But thanks to the parents who have embraced boarding school in numbers, schools are admitting children from the age of five into the boarding sections. Seeing children aged as young as five standing next to mattresses and suitcases bigger than them on reporting day is now a common phenomenon.

One wonders how a child who can barely do homework on their own will wash their clothes, take care of their possessions or themselves. Although nobody has earmarked the right age at which a child should join boarding school, the debate is; are we taking our children to boarding school too early?

There are growing concerns that children are being sent to boarding school at a very young age and for some this has come with adverse effects on their lives. File photo

Better option?
Angella Ankunda, who took her now six-year-old daughter to boarding school when she was five, says in some cases, boarding school is a better option. “If you can leave a three-months-old baby with a house maid and go to work, it would be hypocritical to say that taking a five-year-old to boarding school is the worst thing one can do,” she asserts.
She also argues that instead of leaving your child with a help who might expose them to some bad behaviour or abuse them, why not leave them at school where they will be in a more guided and controlled environment?
“Truth is, it is painful to part with your child at a very young age but circumstances often dictate to parents,” says Ankunda.
But Matilda Namuyaba, a school matron at White Angels Primary School, Masajja, shares that although they try to give more attention to the younger pupils, they cannot provide all the care.

“Since they are many, you cannot give all of them the maximum attention and care they deserve. So, some fall sick and you learn of it later when they are bedridden because they did not tell you or you were too preoccupied to observe. Some young ones even cry in the night when they want their parents, especially when they have just joined the school. Others are too stubborn to listen to you as the matron because they only listen to their parents,” she shares some of their challenges as caretakers.

She further advises that a child should be sent to boarding school when they at least know the basics.
“If a child is able to wash their clothes, bathe, fetch their own water, get their own meals and know when to eat, take care of their belongings and manage most of their affairs or relate easily with others, then these may find boarding school easier than those who cannot. Though we help them, we cannot do everything,” Namuyaba states.

Psychological implications
Lois Nakibuuka, a counselling psychologist, shares that parents or guardians are the first people who influence their child’s life, view of the world and the people in it. “To be separated from them at a young age for boarding school gives them deep anxiety and bewilderment. This may even cause a child to wonder what they could possibly have done to deserve the punishment of being taken off to a strange environment and then try to cope on their own by non-social skills,” she notes.

These may include; interacting and navigating the environment in an awkward, weird, or odd manner, antagonising others, teasing others frequently, being emotionally immature, among others.
“And other issues ranging from anxiety, low self-esteem. Emotional and mental scarring for life may also occur. The inability to sustain lasting emotional relationships may also be as a result of a child feeling unwanted. They may wonder that if they are not good enough for their parents to want them at home, how can they be good enough for anybody else to want them in their lives?” Nakibuuka adds.
She further advises that talking them through the reasons why you are taking them to boarding school way ahead of time will allow them to wrap their heads around the idea and get used to it.

“Tell them about the situations that are leading them to this difficult solution. For example; if a child has to navigate a long route to school, ask them what danger they could encounter and how it can be solved. Point out the advantages of being in boarding school but also tell them what to expect realistically,” she says.

The performance issue
However, amid the debate on age and boarding school is the delusion; by teachers, school owners and parents that boarding school equals great academic results.
“My son has always been an average student right from primary school though he was in boarding school. But when he joined secondary school; day section, the teachers started pestering me to bring him to boarding section. Every time they invited us for a parent’s meeting to look at their assessment marks in the remedial examinations, the one and only solution that all teachers had to his poor results was enrolling him in the boarding section,” Geoffrey Kazibwe confesses.

He recalls teachers advising that when he enrols his Senior Two son into boarding section, he will be surprised at how drastic his grades would improve.
“They used this marketing language like they were more concerned about his grades than I was, that it made me think that probably, the teachers get a commission on every student who enrols in the boarding section!” Kazibwe asserts.

Other alternatives
Richard Muhumuza shares that there are some alternatives parents can consider. “For example, I still felt that my Senior One daughter was still too young for boarding school. What I did was to have her in a student hostel owned by her school (Mengo Secondary School). She stays at hostel during weekdays but comes back home for the weekend,”
This way, he is able to strike a balance between her study time and time with her.

There are some primary and secondary schools that offer weekly boarding to students such as Greenhill Academy and Rainbow International School. Alternatively, home-schooling may be the way to go for some parents. All the parent has to do is hire a qualified teacher to teach their child. This is not only convenient, but will also give the parents ample time with their child.

However, Emmanuel Mugarura, the head of education at Kampala Smart School, an organisation that offers home-schooling services, says before parents choose to home-school their children, there are key aspects to note such as designing a personal learning plan and academic framework for the child. “This includes selecting a curriculum, instructional resources, learning applications and continuity plans,” he explains.
Mugarura adds that a parent needs to also have the chance to provide weekly opportunities where the child meets with other children for interaction to boost their social skills.

Some education experts argue that 10 should be the minimun age at which a child should join boarding school which is not the situation on ground. PHOTO BY ALEX ESAGALA

Explore online
Pauline Mukisa, an online course moderator and digital enthusiast, shares that learning can now be online. “The only challenge so far is that local content may be limited, but a child can apply for an international curriculum in an international school and then study online. The thought may still be far from many people’s minds but it could be something to look at, especially now that more people are embracing digitisation,” she says.

For parents intent on keeping their children in a day school environment, a purely day school could be the solution for you. “The advantages of purely day schools is that the classes are timetabled in a way that will be convenient for all students. Classes start at 8am and end at 5pm to allow students time to move back home in time. It is usually candidate classes that have remedial classes that begin at 7am to 6pm. Additionally you will not get the school administration ordering you about a mandatory boarding section because they do not have the section in the first place,” Henry Bukembo, a teacher and parent, shares.

Views on what should be the right time to take a child to school are divergent from one person to another. However, the International journal of Education and research on ‘The influence of boarding school to young children’ (a case of Tanzania, 2016) refers to Ellen G. White’s view that the suitable age for children to go to boarding school is that of 10 years. The journal also refers to the Kenyan parliament’s decision in 2002 that the proper age for boarding school should be 12 years, when children are old enough.

An illegal move?
Frances Atima, the assistant commissioner in the Directorate of Education Standards (DES), noted that boarding section arrangement is purely facilitated by parents and that government policy only emphasises access to quality education. He said this during the release of a DES report made after a survey on the standard of boarding schools in the country in November last year.

The report also said 70 per cent of secondary schools are illegally operating boarding sections, having sought no permission from the relevant agencies. Atima explained that any institution which wants to have a boarding section must apply separately, be inspected and if they meet the minimum standards, be given authority to operate. Of the 800 secondary schools inspected, only 30 per cent of the schools complied with the required standards. “We already raised the red flag that many schools are operating boarding facilities without authority from the ministry. No school is registered as day and boarding other than the traditional schools, which were there in the early years,” Atima said.

Is boarding school necessary?
Moses Kisekka, a teacher at St Kizito Primary School, shares that although boarding school has its own challenges to a child, it is necessary to impart some life skills. Though a child may be young, boarding school gives them more challenges to become responsible over their own property and life. For example, they may eat their edibles or waste their money the first time, and from that, they learn how to eat responsibly and use things sparingly, which is a skill everyone needs.
He further emphasises that boarding school provides a good environment for a child to fully engage in education related activities with little distractions. Kisekka also notes the fact that boarding school can offer a better environment, especially for children who come from violent and abusive homes, who walk long distances to get to school among other circumstances.