A day in the life of a boarding school

 

In the first of a two-part series on boarding schools, ROSITA BOLANDvisits Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, one of the State’s most successful second-level schools, which will take in its first ‘day boarders’ this year

‘I THINK I HAVE the best office in Ireland,” remarks Br Martin Browne. The atmospheric wood-panelled room was the gun-room of the original owners, the Barrington family. On either side of the fireplace are baize-lined cupboards, with holes at the top to accommodate upright rifle muzzles. They now hold some of Br Martin’s collection of religious books.

Next September, Glenstal will take in “day-boarders” for the first time, starting with six first-year pupils. These pupils will arrive in school at 9am and stay after class for sports, study and supper, remaining until 7.30pm or later. As Glenstal has a rural location, this will initially involve significant parental time for drop-off and pick up each day, as the initial numbers are too small to support a bus service.

Browne is very clear that these students will not be, as he puts it, “day pupils. They are day-boarders. We don’t want to end up with a two-tier student body, or two very distinct groups.”

So why now? “We want to increase the numbers,” Browne admits. “It’s not just about money, but financial considerations are part of it. We want to protect the future of the school. It’s also the closest to what we already do at the school. We haven’t the infrastructure to introduce girls at present, but who knows what the future will hold?”

If the experiment is successful, the intention is to increase the day-boarder intake over time, to eventually comprise one-third of the student cohort.

“I get very irritated when I hear fee-paying schools all lumped into the same categories by the public,” Browne says. “There’s a big difference between a day school that charges fees and a boarding school.”

It’s one reason he is so keen to stress that the new pupils will be known as “day-boarders” rather than “day-pupils”.

“Boarding school is a very particular kind of education. Glenstal is known for its academic excellence, and there’s no point pretending that doesn’t draw students to us.”

The advantage that he sees in a boarding-school education is “community, above all. The old school-tie thing is outdated, but certainly, when they go to college, they tend to hang out together. Also, Glenstal boys never really leave. They keep coming back.”

At Glenstal, in common with several other boarding schools, there is a history of boys attending whose fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins have been there before them.

In terms of disadvantages, Browne acknowledges: “It’s a huge thing for a boy to be away from his parents. It clearly doesn’t suit every boy. Wherever there are groups of people and an intense form of living, there can be hassles and scuffles.”

Glenstal lost some students during the recession, particularly at the beginning of the school cycle. In 2010, the first-year intake was 19; last year it was 32; and this autumn, it’s back to full capacity at 40.

How does the school address the fact of privilege to the students in its care? “You have to be careful how you address it,” Browne says. “You don’t want people to feel guilty either. We do try and challenge them if they’re getting notions about themselves. Say if they’re out of school, at a debate, or a match, or a play, there’d be a various amount of informal input to make sure they’re aware of having privileges, and that they don’t look down on other schools.”

Glenstal is a school where there is a strong focus on sport, particularly rugby. With sport comes exercise – and the need for fuel. “The boys says the food is better than it used to be,” Browne says. The boys also have access to basic kitchen facilities, where they can “cook themselves extra food. Rugby players are very conscious of the need for protein.”

The school campus and grounds are extensive, with 500 acres and a variety of buildings, some modern and some close on two centuries old. Throughout the corridors and rooms there is a persistent smell of disinfectant, and although it’s a chilly early March morning, every window is wide open. There are two sunny refectories and a beautiful circular stone tower room that is still in use as a library. The boys’ dormitories are very simple and spartan, with home-made wooden beds, bunks, cupboards and lockers; no pictures or posters on the walls, many of which require freshening up with paint, and no personal reading lamps. Most youth hostels offer more comfortable accommodation.

So what it life at Glenstal like from the boarding perspective? The Irish Times spoke to 19 students from different years. This is what they said.

FIRST AND SECOND YEARS

“It was fully my choice to come here. I wanted to come because I want to get a good job when I’m older,” says Sean Hammond.

“Normal day-schools don’t have as good an education as you get here,” says Alex Ross.

Even though they’re more or less at the beginning of their school life, the students agree that the close friendships they make are the best thing about the boarding experience. “You’re with your class 24/7, but you have to put up with all the bad habits too, like snoring,” groans Luke Ryan.

“Being with your friends can be a curse or a blessing,” says Eoin O’Loghlen. “You can’t avoid other people, so if you have a fight, you have to try and fix it,” Hammond says. “In a day school, you’d be more willing to keep the fight going, but here you have to solve it,” David Quane adds.

“If it rains, there’s more chance of a fight, because you’re stuck inside,” O’Loghlen says. They all agree tension is highest just prior to going home for a weekend. “Most of the time, the fights are verbal, but it can sometimes lead to fist-fighting,” says Hammond.

They have various theories as to how the new day-boarders will settle in. “The school will have to do a lot of changing,” O’Loghlen guesses. “And how will they do red-card detention?” Ross asks. “That’s at 6am on Saturday mornings.”

“I think people get the wrong image of boarding schools. They think we’re stuck-up and posh. We’re not posh. We don’t have a uniform,” says Patrick Hayes.

“Buying uniforms works out a lot more expensive. It can be €60 for a jumper,” offers Quane. “But here, you could be wearing a €2 jumper from Primark.”

THIRD YEARS

“The great thing about boarding school is that you bond with people a lot more. You really get to know them. I think it’s a good experience for later life. If I was only leaving home at 18 or 19, I think it would much more difficult for me,” says Chris Bouma.

“I think it’s tough on some people here if you’re not a rugby player,” says Ben Clancy. “But the people who don’t play rugby always find something to do,” says Colm Hogan. “They go to the library. Or play music.”

Boys who don’t play rugby but who do go to the gym are called “Trumps”. (So called because non-sporting boys used to play bridge instead.)

Hogan likes the “structured layout to the day. You know what you’re meant to be doing all the time.” “It’s like being part of a family away from home,” says Clancy. “And you have to make it your job to fit in. You learn self-discipline.”

Daniel Dennis wouldn’t alter a thing about Glenstal, not even the quality of the food, or portion size, which several boys admit they’d like to see changed. “It’s perfect,” he insists. Dennis says he’s learned tolerance through having to get on with his classmates. “I think that’s good for later life.”

“Maybe having girls would be a good change,” Killian Glynn admits, to laughter. “Everyone would step up their game then.” “Until about a year and a half ago, I felt a bit guilty about what my education was costing, but now I think my parents wouldn’t send me here if they couldn’t afford it,” says Chris Bouma.

“You feel a responsibility to study. To take things like the mocks seriously,” Glynn says. All but sixth-year boys have supervised study in cubicles in rooms called “The Trenches”.

“We’re privileged to be here, but our friends at home know it’s the choice we made for a better education. They don’t mind, as long as you don’t go on about it,” Hogan say.

SIXTH YEARS

In common with the other students, the sixth years agree that the friends they’ve made during boarding school is the best thing about the experience. “It’s almost like a family,” says James Hanley. “You know each other inside out. You know the best and worst things about each other,” agrees Nathan Johnston.

“The friends you make here are so different from the other friends you make,” James Ryan says. “If it [boarding school] was only about sheer education, then you’d go to a grind school.”

James Hanley admits to missing “Mammy’s cooking”. All the boys say they appreciate their families much more when they see them less. They can phone home as they wish, and between mobiles and email, enjoy a far more frequent contact with their parents than their contemporaries in less connected days.

For David Higgins, the structure of the school day has really helped him focus. “You have no choice but to study.”

The downside of being in the most senior year in the school, some do admit, is missing the freedoms enjoyed by their peers attending day school.

“You hear about friends going out at weekends. We can’t meet up with girls. And you do lose contact with some friends from home,” says Johnston.

Their expectations for themselves as Glenstal students are high. “The question was never, Do we go to college or not, it was, What do we do in college?” says Johnston, and his classmates nod in agreement.

Glenstal factfile

Glenstal is a boys-only seven-day boarding school in the village of Murroe, Co Limerick. Set in 500 acres, and the former home of the Barrington family, it is now owned and run by the Benedictine order of monks. It has been a boarding school since 1932.

The current headmaster is Br Martin Browne. The school has classes from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, with Saturday class from 9am to 12.40pm. Once a month, school finishes at noon on Friday and students go home until the following Monday evening.

Boarding capacity:200

Current number of boarders:182

From September, the school will begin a staggered intake of day-boarders, starting with six first-year pupils.

Fees for boarders:€15,400 per year

Fees for day-boarders:€8,950 per year