What is clear from my experience is that the placement at a boarding school, away from all familiarity was, arguably, a gamble. But this gamble became the most successful move of my 20 years in care. It changed me forever.
At the age of 14, I was at my second secondary school and on the cusp of yet another placement breakdown, having already been in care for nine years. I had been with this family for a little over 18 months when my Social Worker presented me with seemingly formidable two-part proposition. The first part was that I would change schools, yet again, and move to an all-girls private Catholic boarding school in Essex.
The second part of the proposition was that I would simultaneously move back to one of my previous foster families, and this would be my base to go back to during the school holidays. With apprehension, I said I would give it a try. I didn’t expect much even of this seemingly big change in my life because I had got used to moving around and being disappointed. If I am honest, I felt somewhat numb towards the impending change in my schooling and home life.
But I soon realised this was a big change and a big chance. The grounds of New Hall School, near Chelmsford in Essex, were like nothing I had ever seen before, with acres of land and greenery. It was breath-taking and I couldn’t believe this was my new reality; I had never seen a school like it. I didn’t quite understand it in this way at the time, but this was to be the backdrop of my life for the rest of my childhood and essentially what I would later call ‘home’.
In my first year at the school, I tried to keep to myself and I found it challenging re-creating myself in such an unfamiliar environment. My fellow students were predominantly from a privileged, middle class background with more wealth than I could imagine at that age. I knew (or thought) they were very different to me. I also felt that my childhood experiences thus far in care and living in less advantaged communities in London, created a barrier for me. I spoke differently, my sense of humour was different, my aspirations were different and, academically, I was miles behind. The big idea of boarding school suddenly seemed like a mountain I would never be able to climb.
Despite that, the sheer space of this leafy boarding school provided me with everything that I needed at the time, even though I didn’t immediately realise it. More than anything else, it gave me stability and a clear direction. I soon realised that the structure and discipline of boarding school became a comfort to me and not an obstacle. I knew that, as long I kept my work to a certain level and I behaved myself, I would go from year to year until I reached the end of year thirteen. There was routine that I had never had before. Each time I came back to the school from the holidays, the place I had initially found so overwhelming and daunting, gave me a sense of familiarity and peace. I surprised myself at how readily I came to regard boarding school as home and my peers as close friends with whom I shared much more in common than I could ever have imagined.
Boarding school broadened my understanding of society and presented me with an opportunity to learn the ways of people from across the broadest spectrum of life. From this I learnt how to be comfortable around a wide range of people and this in turn heightened my aspirations.
Once I left New Hall Sixth Form, I started working with Barnardo’s Children’s Rights Service and this is where I realised my passion and my commitment to empowering young people, in particular those like me who have been in care. Since then, I have led on national youth participation programmes for a number of leading fostering and adoption charities. I currently work at the Greater London Authority and lead on the Mayor’s volunteering programme in schools.
Just as I realise that boarding school would not suit everyone, I strongly believe many more young people should be given the opportunity. After all, my own ‘placement’ at New Hall really did once look like a longshot.
I am so grateful to my social worker at the time and the school staff who believed in me.
To say that boarding school changed my life forever would be an understatement.
Erina Naluwaga attended boarding school at New Hall, in Chelmsford, before achieving her BA and MA at university in London. She is now Youth Project Officer of Team London, at the Greater London Authority.