The school that refused to be beaten by lockdown

One memory of lockdown sure to haunt pupils and parents alike for years to come, is the hell of homeschooling.

For most teenagers, the past weeks have meant being barricaded indoors staring at screens or lolling in bed, eschewing all but minimal exercise while pining for their friends and even (whisper it) their teachers.

But not every pupil’s experience has been so bleak. Welcome to the school that the pandemic forgot.

On the eve of lockdown, Mark Waldron, headmaster of independent Ryde School, on the Isle of Wight, had a lightbulb moment.

Why send all the children home to isolate when they could enjoy lockdown as one giant family? It proved to be a life-changing moment for all concerned. Of the 56 boarders, paying some £10,000 a term, 14 boys and six girls, aged 11 to 18, jumped at the chance to stay on at school, looked after by three brave teachers, one of whom selflessly left her own children at home in order to isolate with her young charges.

Of the 56 boarders, paying some £10,000 a term, 14 boys and six girls, aged 11 to 18, jumped at the chance to stay on at the Ryde School on the Isle of Wight

For this unique band, the 114 days they spent together have been a delightful combination of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons. They’ve enjoyed the sort of innocent, old-fashioned existence we can only dream about.

Mobile phones and computers were quickly forgotten. They have been building camp fires, paddling in the sea (the school grounds sweep down to the beach,) playing card games, going on treasure hunts, and still having full online teaching. And with the school cooks and cleaners sent home, they got stuck into the chores: meals were cooked, flowers watered, tables laid and dogs walked.

In fact, so idyllic was the experience that some pupils who had gone home decided to come back when lockdown eased, after hearing how much fun their schoolmates were having. Headteacher Mark says: ‘When the country went into lockdown, I was wondering what on earth to do. Then I remembered how the school had stayed open throughout World War II by evacuating pupils and staff to the countryside.

‘Then children were locked down for five years. Yet, when they return for reunions, they always tell me they were halcyon days, living as one big family. Suddenly I realised we could create the same magical experience.’

Bembridge Boarding House, one of the school’s three boarding houses offered the perfect environment. It is set in 100 acres sweeping down to a sandy cove.

Bembridge Boarding House, one of the school’s three boarding houses offered the perfect environment for the children. It is set in 100 acres sweeping down to a sandy cove (pictured above)

Bembridge Boarding House, one of the school’s three boarding houses offered the perfect environment for the children. It is set in 100 acres sweeping down to a sandy cove (pictured above)

Houseparents Carlos Carubia, 41, and wife Maria, 43, agreed to stay and run the home with house mistress Nicola Wilson, 52. For the Carubias, far from their native Argentina, it was an easy decision. For Nicola it meant leaving her own children, aged 18 to 22, home on the mainland.

‘I knew I would miss my own family terribly,’ she says. ‘But this is my job and I knew I was needed. In fact I’ve never laughed so much and seeing the children pull together and blossom has been magic.’ Mark says: ‘I can see how this has transformed them. They’ve learnt to be kinder, more responsible and more appreciative. They’ve learnt to have fun.’

As these glorious pictures show, Ryde’s 114-day school lockdown really has been the jolliest of japes…

Ging gang goolie gollie gollie watcha!

On balmy evenings, the children helped build a camp fire and toasted marshmallows over the flames. ‘It was magic,’ recalls head of boarding Francis, 17, who had elected not to return to Hong Kong. ‘There was no one for miles around so we could play music and tell stories. Lights-out was at 10 pm and we’d have to be dragged inside to go to bed.’ 

Sunday brunch and hugs for the dogs

Sunday mornings started with a leisurely brunch when the children piled into the kitchen to rustle up their own breakfasts. Then, while some played croquet, rugby or football, others preferred to chat. Housemother Nicola’s dogs, Stevie and Frankie, found themselves suddenly at the centre of an adoring family. ‘They’ve never been cuddled so much or enjoyed so many walks,’ laughs Nicola.

Who’ll win the jigsaw challenge? 

Like the pupils studying in their own homes, the Bembridge boarders had a full timetable of virtual lessons until 3pm every day. As soon as they finished Catharina, 15, led the charge to the common room to work on a jigsaw puzzle. To the envy of her three siblings back home in Germany, Catharina elected to stay at school.

‘They can’t believe what fun I’ve been having,’ she says.

The children managed to complete 14, 1,000-piece puzzles. ‘They got obsessed. We had to keep ordering more,’ laughs Carlos.

‘It was great to have something they could all do together — a real bonding experience.’

Meal inspiration from round the globe

As with all families, lockdown meals became a highlight. But with 23 people to feed, Maria and Nicola found themselves running out of ideas. ‘We looked for reasons to celebrate,’ says Nicola. ‘We jumped on the idea of Mexican Independence Day (pictured). We also had World Chocolate Day and the kids’ favourite — International Burger Day. Normally children bolt their food but meal times lasted hours as children chatted.’

Luckily a well established supply line meant food — and loo rolls — never ran short. Nevertheless the boarding house got through 1,320 eggs, 81 kg of jasmine rice and 696 ice creams.

If you go down to the woods today…

With 100 acres of beautiful gardens and woodland to explore, the children roamed free. They could scamper down to the beach in small groups where they explored and paddled. 

‘We normally share the beach with holiday cottages but, of course, they were deserted. So we have had the beach entirely to ourselves,’ recalls Maria. ‘It’s been heavenly.’

Lose at cards? You take the rubbish out!

In the age of computers, card games look like ancient history. But when the children found a pack of Uno cards, it opened a whole new world. It rapidly became a nightly ritual, with everyone joining in. 

‘We had a score board in the kitchen,’ says Seth, 17, who’s boarding from the Falkland Islands with his sisters Tilda, 14, and Harriet, 12. ‘We kept introducing new rules. Whoever got the lowest score had to take the rubbish out that night. It was fiercely competitive.’ 

Bonding over baking and balloons 

The children bonded over baking. For Karol, whose parents live in Milan — at the centre of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak — it was a happy distraction. ‘We sensed when people needed help,’ she says. ‘When one of the boys lost a close relative, everyone rallied around, dragging him off to play Frisbee and card games.’ 

When Nicola celebrated her birthday in May, she was bombarded with cake and balloons. ‘We knew she’d be missing her family,’ says Karol. 

Everyone had to dig in

With no outsiders allowed in, the boarding house had to be self-sufficient, so everyone mucked in with jobs from stripping beds to washing up and watering the garden. It was a boon for the staff on call 24:7. ‘Two boys injured their ankles playing a combination of rugby-basketball they invented, but we managed to treat them on site,’ says Carlos.

Cake to mark 101 days 

There was huge excitement when German teacher Anja Lengersdorf delivered a celebratory cake to the boarding house to mark 101 days in lockdown. ‘No one could go inside the house — not even me,’ says headmaster Mark, ‘but we wanted the children to know they weren’t forgotten.’ Other treats included Easter Sunday, when Mark popped into the grounds to lay an Easter Egg hunt. 

Adventures on the beach

All the normal water sports like sailing and kayaking may have been banned for safety reasons with so little adult supervision. But, instead, the children enjoyed the simple pleasures of the seashore like hunting for shells and splashing about in the water.