Just about to leave the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) conference in the heart of Victorian Manchester. Much good idea sharing and updating on everything from safeguarding to outreach, but it will be the memory of positive advocates for boarding that will stick with me above all. Both are men who exemplify the degree to which the right kind of boarding experience can have a transformative effect on the individual’s confidence. In the BSA magazine, Tony Little, former head of Eton, described the quality well: “through my own experience [in boarding] I have seen students metamorphose from cautious caterpillars into bold caterpillars ready to take flight”.
The first example was Ben Fogle whose speech, early in the conference, referred to the way his experience at Bryanston had transformed him. In the BSA magazine he summarises it: “Shy as a mouse, I lacked a voice and probably a personality”. Boarding was a powerful ingredient of “confidence… confidence in me. I began to feel comfortable in my own skin.” He concludes by describing confidence as the antithesis of the public school swagger: it’s “a virtue. A skill. A feeling. A value.” His testimony and his subsequent life are fine examples of the effect of that miscellaneous bundle of experiences, mainly encountered outside the classroom, that go under the dry expression ‘co-curricular’ (switching on the TV late last night, there is his large frame, commenting on the mating habits of wildebeest).
The second example of confidence in action was last night’s after dinner talk by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent and ex Marlborough student. Although he would be the last one to describe himself in this way, his talk and his life are, like Fogle’s, an example of physical and moral courage. Frank described how his experience at school made him hungry to get out and do new things once he left Marlborough. This translated into him, as a student of Arabic, having the chutzpah to knock on the door of a family in Cairo and ask if he could live with them and learn their language. His account of his near fatal wounding at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates (“losers”, as he described them) in 2004 was especially powerful: his extraordinary luck in surviving that attack and the way that writing his experience down had been decisive for his state of mind. Here is an example of both confidence and an inspirational, cheerful resilience: his conclusion “life is still an awful lot of fun”.