Some people believe that the biggest problem with boarding schools is that students are typically spoon-fed with the materials they need for acing exams. In doing so, they lose the chance to develop the capacity for self-education and never fully learn how to learn — perhaps the most critical skills of all.

Throughout my formal education years, I have spent 5 years in two boarding schools. Much of what I’ll share in this post is derived from my own, first-hand experience. And though two schools out of the countless total will in no way satisfy the condition for statistical validity, I do believe that much of what I experienced was the rule rather than the exception.

Spoon-feeding: not the biggest problem

While excessive hand-holding is the perhaps the most common issue associated with boarding schools, I do think that its significance is overplayed. Sure, boarding school students might receive much more academic resources, but I believe that is simply the result of them spending a lot more time with their teachers and in class compared to their daily school counterparts.

Given the same amount of time and resources, I believe the teachers in daily schools would also do all that they can to ensure that their students are well prepared for exams. Just because the students are not spoon-fed does not necessarily mean that they will automatically learn how to self-learn. There will be those that will — either by their own volition or by encouragement from their social circles — but this number is often small. It is important to realise that this number is small for boarding schools too. Just because the students are spoon-fed does not necessarily mean that they will not learn how to self-learn.

In the end, whether or not the main bulk of the students learn to appreciate knowledge itself — a critical aspect of any good education — rests mostly on the education system and the teachers that are the backbone of its delivery system. In this I do not think there is much distinction between boarding schools and daily schools. Teachers will adapt to the system and environment they are placed in, and will utilise the resources available to them as best they can.

There is no doubt that teaching (and learning) for exams is misguided, and terribly unfortunate that our education system seems to be encouraging this. I would like to believe that this is unintentional, but an analysis of that would require a separate post. Suffice to say that I believe that if you teach for the love of knowledge and curiosity, the exams part will take care of itself. However, this kind of teaching is often inefficient and requires a huge effort on the part of the teachers — not something that can be easily achieved without genuine passion.

Brain drain

Now that I have dispelled the problem of spoon-feeding (I feel that it is important to dispel it), let’s move to the other problems that I would argue are of greater significance. One such problem is brain drain. Often when people talk about brain drain they are referring to the problem of professionals of a country migrating to another country. It is important to realise that brain drain occurs on a local scale as well, and its implications are real and unfortunate.

It is indisputable that boarding schools often have strict academic entry requirements such that only the brightest of students will be accepted. Brightest here means those with very good academic achievements — a misguided but easy method to measure intellectuality. This results in an exodus of young bright minds from the daily schools they come from.

This creates an imbalance in the local daily schools — they have little or no top academic performers to co-mingle with the other students of lesser academic achievements. This robs the students from peers that they could learn much from. It works both ways — often the students with top academic achievement lack many other qualities found in those with lower academic achievements — such as sports and nonconformity (yes, I do think nonconformity is valuable).

This effect may not be so pronounced in schools located in cities, where demographically they have greater number of high performers simply because they have access to greater resources. The problem is worse in small towns and rural areas, to whom the need for quality education is even greater. When the brightest kids in the village go to boarding schools, who’s left to help the other kids with their homework?

Exacerbation of racial clustering

Another significant problem is one that touches the very fabric of our society. Malaysia has always been a multiracial country, and so far we’ve been living in relative peace and harmony. No major racial clashes has occurred since the bloody events of 1969. But I believe this racial harmony is more form than substance, a byproduct of ignorance and non-interference rather than of understanding and tolerance.

It is difficult today to find a boarding school that has a racial makeup of the students that reflect the racial makeup of the country. In the first boarding school that I went to, out of the 450 or so students only two were of Indian ethnicity — the rest were Malays. In the second boarding school that I went to, out of the 600 or so students there were no Chinese or Indian students. This is despite the 10% quota for non-bumiputera students.

The result of this is both unfortunate and dangerous. Often when you go to boarding schools, your regular friends are almost exclusively those from the same boarding school. This precludes any interaction with the other races, preventing any sort of real friendships that crosses the racial boundaries. Without such interaction, development of multi-racial and multi-cultural understanding and tolerance are practically non-existent. They simply have no chance to take place.

It only makes things worse that often there are regular religious talks (or rather, talks disguised as being religious) in the boarding schools where the us-against-them mentality is the order of the day. Even when promoting good behaviours, they are often exemplified by vilifying the practitioners of other religions — something I can never agree to.

I suspect the same problems occur in schools whose vast majority of students are of a single ethnicity, be it Malay, Chinese, or Indians. As a result, racial relations in Malaysia today are mostly underscored by intolerance, apprehension, lack of respect, and in some extreme cases abject hostility. It might be a stretch to say that this is a result of boarding schools, but I believe it is a part of the disease.

Conclusions

In light of these problems, it is unfortunate that there are many more boarding schools today than there were only five years ago. If someone were to ask if I would recommend sending their kids to a boarding school, my general answer would probably be no (the actual answer has to depend on the specific circumstances of each case).