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South China Morning Post: Ready to jump aboard?

Dec 7 2014 As global competition to get into a top university intensifies, more and more parents want to secure a head start for their children by having them educated at a well-known high school, usually in the UK, US, Canada or Australia. This often means getting them into a boarding school at an early age, which is no mean feat in itself, due to the ever-growing number of applications for such school places.

Boarding school experience can be very useful, but parents need to prepare their children well for the years they will spend apart from their family, with the phone and social media as the only channels for parental support. This preparation starts with the child's upbringing. 

"To prepare the child, give them independence within boundaries, such as taking care of themselves in little things, handling money, maybe [having their own] bank account, managing their own time table, learning how to protect themselves," says Christine Ma-Lau, principal of Junior Excellent Members of Society (JEMS), a tutorial school that aims to develop children's character and values. The educator admits that this takes time on the parents' side, as they need to explain that certain things are not allowed, rather than simply requiring the child to follow orders. However, it is time well spent to prevent problems and reduce anxiety later on, she says. 

Unavoidably, parents will worry about whether their child will come under peer pressure at boarding school to pick up bad habits, such as drinking, smoking, clubbing and even drugs. "They should have their values formed and their moral compass built up before they go. There is usually some negative influence and they need to know what they stand for," Ma-Lau says. 

KK Ip, chief executive and senior advisor to education consultancy GR Talent, who put his own children through boarding school, suggests that some family holidays be spent doing volunteer work to see how children cope outside their comfort zone. "Try to get the child to see the other side of society, un-privileged people, remote areas, a rough environment and different cultures," he says. 

It is also a good idea to send the child to summer camps organised locally or overseas - even at one of the schools on your list - to learn independence and get used to time spent apart from the family, Ip says.

However, if the bond between the child and parents is not strong, or the parents put their children into boarding school as a punishment because they cannot cope with them, the experience can be detrimental to the child and their relationship with the parents will not fully d