Education is GREAT Britain: Global Lessons from British Boarding

The GREAT Britain campaign showcases the best of all the UK has to offer the world, and its boarding schools with long-standing traditions are continuing to innovate and deliver world-class education.  BESSA speaks to Coen Armstrong, recently graduated after five years at Eton College, about his experiences of boarding in reputedly the best independent boys’ school in the country.  He is currently a freshman at Stanford University, California.

At the age of 13, Armstrong found himself at crossroads. He was given the choice of staying on as a day pupil in his Singapore school or opting for what seemed to be an “academically more interesting and competitive” environment in the form of boarding at Eton College.  He chose the latter and has had no regrets.

The transition to his new school did come with an initial culture shock.  Moreover, he knew that as a scholarship recipient, he would need to make some adjustments to take on those challenges: “I think these are things that make transitions harder, but they should not be fixated upon early on.”  For those who persevere and are intent on enjoying boarding life, the rewards can be bountiful. Armstrong feels that he made the correct choice of school because he had done his own homework. Drawing conclusions based on the opinions of friends often does not work. “It’s better to go and visit, get first-hand evidence and talk to many students at the school”.

In terms of reputation, Armstrong will admit that Eton is, empirically speaking, an institution that educates many privileged boys.  However, any preconceptions about arrogance he harboured were dispelled. With around 30% of the cohort at Eton on fee assistance, Armstrong insists that socio-economic elitism was neither significantly flaunted nor felt among the student population.  He is quick to add that “anachronism must be differentiated from tradition – the uniform is Edwardian, the buildings mostly much older, the traditions perhaps a little strange, but they are modernizing at a fast pace, refurbishing boarding houses and building new facilities.”

In emphasising the advantages of boarding, Armstrong suggests the main benefits were “spending the whole day with friends, eliminating time wasted through travel, and the plethora of activities which boarding school entails”.  Indeed, when asked which special moments marked his entire experience, this self-confessed intellectual claimed it was not only memories as mundane as staying up late chatting with friends, but also the incredible exposure he had from his debating activities and visiting speakers.  Armstrong never missed the chance to hear the great academics, successful businessmen and politicians (including two former British prime ministers in 2017 alone) who were invited to talk at Eton.

Despite a heavy workload, the fact that Armstrong was a full boarder meant he still had “quite a lot of free time”.  He played chess for fun, trawled Wikipedia, Reddit and other online platforms in his learning and debated extensively.  It was also easy to stay healthy and do some sport, with the squash, tennis and table tennis facilities within walking distance of his boarding house.

The life lesson that all boarders learn is, as Armstrong vividly recalls, “living with people you don’t necessarily get along with”.  Elaborating further, he explains that the mechanics of living alone (and abroad) means you have to deal with many things you would not have to at home.  Boarding schools are structured so that the boys themselves must take the initiative in order to get much done. The boys are given a substantial amount of free time and consequently have to make substantial and responsible decisions about how to fill it.

How then did his boarding school experience shape decisions on further education and perhaps a future career?  Armstrong is candid in admitting that he still has no firm idea about where his path will take him, except possibly in the world of academia.  By virtue of his teachers’ qualifications, he was exposed at Eton to serious academics. “Out of my seven final year teachers, five had PhDs and DPhils or both; the others were some of the best teachers I’ve had, armed with Masters of Arts or Mathematics from Cambridge.  Class sizes are small, and I was given good extension material and explanations.”

On a more practical level, Eton has a good university counselling programme for its students which Armstrong was able to tap.  He felt the pupils received excellent support in the form of additional lectures, interview advice and test preparation as the school provided oversight of the admissions process for both UK and US universities.  In the end, it came down to a choice of Oxford or Stanford for Armstrong. His house at Eton may have “felt like home”, but having learnt all about stepping outside one’s comfort zone through boarding, he begins a new chapter with confidence in America.