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Home from home for the weekly boarders

On Mondays in remote Argyll, pupils of Dunoon Grammar pack more than a satchel, but prefer that to a twice daily 30-mile trek, writes Eleanor Caldwell.

School buses from Tighnabruaich and Lochgoilhead in Argyll start out on Mondays at around 7am to transport children up to 30 miles to Dunoon Grammar school for the week. Arriving in Dunoon at 8.15am, the pupils quickly drop their bags into the school hostel - which is one of five on mainland Scotland and home to 48 pupils - and then take the 10-minute walk to the 1,000 pupil school. They will not take the long bus journey home until after school on Fridays.

Most of the children agree that the Monday morning journey is not the best time of the week, "especially if someone is being sick in the bus," says one first-year boy. But they are unanimous that they would hate to commute every day. "All we'd do would be to travel, go to school and do our homework," says a third-year girl. "It would be so tiring."

The concrete complex, built in the 1960s, replaced the system of local digs, which accommodated such luminaries of Dunoon Grammar as the late leader of the Labour party, John Smith. The grey architecture belies the homely atmosphere and welcoming smell of baking inside. The youngsters quickly adopted the hostel as their second home, where they are cared for by a staff of seven.

Homesickness is not a problem generally. "I think it's just like one big sleepover," says one S2 boy. Another says his local pals envy his lifestyle. However, one third-year boy says: "I don't mind admitting now that I cried quite a lot at the start" and a first-year girl also admits to "a lot of tears" in her first week. "That was my Mum as well!" she adds, laughing.

All are agreed that settling-in took days rather than weeks and one girl thinks her family felt the absence more than she did.

For those with older brothers and sisters, the prospect of secondary school was long synonymous with the idea of weekly life away from home. "Even our mums and dads and aunts and uncles were in the hostel," say three girls.

And, for some, family life is not fully interrupted. "Before I came, I really fought with my brother at weekends when he came home," one boy says. "We're really close now. It's good to know he's always here. It makes it a lot easier if I'm bothered about anything."

The officer in charge at the hostel, Jake Chambers, visits Primary 7 classes in the outlying feeder schools to introduce himself as their future Monday to Friday deputy parent. "It is important that they get to know me a bit before they arrive for their first night away from home and their first day at the school," he says.

Mr Chambers, who has also worked at the other Argyll school hostel at Oban, encourages an open-door approach. "Parents can appear on spec at any time," he says, "but we do discourage them from coming three times a week. That wouldn't be helpful for the youngster."

Mr Chambers is philosophical about homesickness. He encourages youngsters to show their feelings and share any worries with either him or another member of staff. "We obviously can't replace Mum and Dad," he says. "However, we hope that we offer all the right support."

House parents Cathy Gilmour and Roma Johnston agree, saying that the youngsters rarely experience major emotional crises. Mrs Johnston does one sleep-over duty a week but has been called by a pupil only once in seven years.

Daily life in the hostel is comfortably regulated around the ordinary realities of term-time life. Homework is done every evening during the study period from 5.30-9.30pm, immediately after tea.

The pupils have a certain amount of flexibility in organising their own time. Weekly study is limited to three hours per eek for pupils in S1-S2, rising to six hours in S4. Within that allocation, the younger pupils are only permitted to work for an hour and a half every night, so that they don't cram all the work into one session. Senior pupils are trusted to regulate their own work according to exam commitments.

The atmosphere in the study room is relaxed but industrious. Pupils sit beside their friends and enjoy being able to work together. They profess to not copying or cheating. "It would be pretty obvious if we did," one girl points out.

Study is supervised by one of four teachers who are on hand to assist. Modern studies teacher Donald McRae got to know some of the pupils well through running the after-school shinty club and he enjoys the more relaxed relationship with them. While some will ask for help with their work, most get on with it by themselves and have occasional chats with him as he walks around the room.

Opinions among the children about the arrangements for study vary. "I think you should just have to do your actual homework and not have to fill the rest of the time with study," says one first-year boy. Two of the third-year girls would like to be allowed to study more as they approach exams and would also like to work in their own rooms.

Access to the bedrooms is not permitted in the evening, which a group of first-year girls objects to on the grounds that they sometimes forget things and can't go up and get them. However, forgetting things and leaving books at home can be more of a problem!

The older pupils have the privilege of a single room, but younger ones share a room between three in blocks segregated for boys and girls. For each group of 10 children a senior pupil, elected as a hostel prefect, plays a pastoral role.

There is general agreement among the pupils about the importance of having their own prefect. "I tell my prefect everything. She's just like a big sister," says one girl whose prefect, like herself, comes from Lochgoilhead. "They let us have fun but not go over the top," says a first-year boy.

Prefect status in the hostel is not the same as in school. Mr Chambers selects the hostel prefects. "It's quite independent from school," he says.

Many of the pupils aspire to becoming a hostel prefect. One third-year boy says he would like to have the experience of taking responsibility for younger pupils, not least for the later bedtimes and occasional late suppers.

Pupils in S1-S3 are in bed by 9.30pm with lights out at 10pm. Older pupils are in bed by 11pm and the hostel closes up for the night at 11.30pm. Some profess to being allowed to stay up later at home, but one boy says he is used to going to bed early so he's not bothered, and it is much better than getting up at 6am every day to travel to school.

The children are not restricted to staying in every evening. The younger ones are allowed to book out for up to an hour. What is crucial is that Mr Chambers or the duty officer knows exactly where they are. This could be fencing or angling clubs, the town swimming pool or visiting local friends' houses. Transport by car or minibus is there for them if they need it.

While the hostel is obviously very relaxed and homely, punishment is doled out when necessary. If youngsters continuously leave bed linen messy, for example, they might have to make beds for a week "as a wee reminder", says Mr Chambers.

Hostel life, say the pupils, is much like life at home. "It's like a family," says one girl, "and if you're really missing your Mum you can phone her every night."

It doesn't look as if anyone is too troubled in the sitting room, as the youngsters watch television, play Monopoly and one boy asks Mr Chambers for "a wee hand with this hard German".

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