From ‘new kid’ to a young ‘man on a mission’: How boarding school gave Axel skills for life

For young people to enjoy success in life, they increasingly need to develop skills that can't always be found in a textbook. Schools play an important role ensuring their students become well-rounded adults, both in and outside of the classroom. Here's how one student's boarding experience transformed him from a teenager, to a confident young man - ending up making a difference thousands of kilometres away from home.

From ‘new kid’ to a young ‘man on a mission’: How boarding school gave Axel skills for life
Axel Bourgeois learned important life skills as part of the SSHL rowing team. Photo: SSHL

The desire by parents for their children to develop important interpersonal skills early is understandable. Increasingly not only employers but also higher education institutions and universities indicate they want to see evidence of vital non-academic skills such as empathy, resilience and the ability to communicate effectively, alongside good grades and subject knowledge.

For example, a 2019 survey revealed 70 percent of universities considered developed interpersonal skills being of ‘moderate’ to ‘considerable’ importance in their admission choices – and that they look for them through involvement in extra-curricular activities such as team sports. Meanwhile, employers are consistently stressing the need for what they call ‘soft skills’ among their hires. These include, as Forbes writes, flexibility, curiousity, and the ability to think critically. 

So, when French-Swedish couple Hugues and Mia Bourgeois decided to return to Europe from Hong Kong, they had a very clear goal in mind for their children’s education. 

“We wanted Axel and his sister to connect with their roots. We felt that Sweden would be a great environment and we wanted to give them what we had experienced as children. We also wanted to prepare them for what lies ahead in life.” says Hugues.

Most of us would agree the skills young people need to thrive aren’t exclusively academic. Often it can be the activities that a school might offer outside of the classroom that end up making all the difference in their personal development.

Finding the right learning environment for the Bourgeois children, therefore, was critical.

A new beginning

Axel picks up his story: “When we came back from Hong Kong, I went to another international school in Stockholm, but I wanted to change.” 

“A few years before SSHL (Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket) came to present in Hong Kong about life at the school. So, in 2019, I went to the campus a few weeks before the start of the academic year. We discussed going there as a boarder. I thought the idea was very interesting.”

Hugues adds: “We had a very short period to decide whether Axel would go, but he said to us. ‘You never know if something will work unless you try.’ So he did!”

Boarding at SSHL gives students the confidence and independence they need to thrive. Learn how boarding develops skills and unlocks the potential of young people

Axel continues, recalling his early days at the school. 

“When I started at SSHL, I didn’t have someone looking over my shoulder. I had many new responsibilities like doing my laundry, for example. I wasn’t used to it, but I’d like to think I settled in very quickly. 

“I had to live to learn together with people I didn’t know. If you have twenty people in a house, you’re not able to leave your socks or your dishes in the living room. Developing the skills to live with other students in my boarding house was one of the most important things I did.

“Boarding school is not for everyone, it takes a certain amount of discipline and self-control.”

Outside the classroom, Axel was making the most of the opportunities SSHL gave him. 

“I made good friends, and I tried new things. I am involved in the model United Nations, the Math Club, and the Backgammon Club. There are so many extracurricular activities

“Last year, I joined the rowing team. We practise on Lake Mälaren, and I’ve taken part in two competitions. If you’re rowing, you need to be ‘in sync’ with everybody else. Coordination and teamwork on the lake are important and for that, you need to know how to communicate effectively.”

Not only was Axel enjoying a wide variety of activities at SSHL, but he learned to work effectively both in teams, and as a leader.

Axel playing Backgammon at SSHL, and his parents Mia and Hugues Bourgeois. Photos: Supplied

Building a better life for others 

Recently, Axel put the skills he’s honed during his time at SSHL into practice, as he travelled to Africa together with the school’s ‘Kenya Project’ team.

“The ‘Kenya Project’ started 20 years ago and raises funds to help a village in Kenya. From small beginnings, it became really big – the project ended up building a school for around 100 students! It’s giving education to kids who wouldn’t receive it otherwise.”

“During our trip, we spent time with the children at the school, built football goals (that were put to good use!) and brought some computers that we gave to the teachers to help with lessons. We could see the school taking shape. I also taught some basic maths and it was very enjoyable. 

“Honestly, I think we got more from that trip than we gave to the village. It made me reflect on my life. When we got back, I presented to my fellow students about what we did, and I think they’re excited to take part.”

From little things, big things grow

Axel is not the only one who has noticed distinct personal growth since his start at SSHL. Both Hugues and Mia have seen tremendous growth in their son. 

Hugues states: “He’s found a place that has truly nourished his potential. The support he received from the SSHL teachers and the boarding staff have been incredible. It has been an excellent decision sending him there.”

Adding to personal growth, Mia believes that the school has helped develop Axel’s thinking skills. 

“What sums up Axel’s development is that he went from a fairly shy 14-year-old to a young man who could travel the world, and then share his reflections in front of 250 other students.

“I think the IB (International Baccalaureate) program at SSHL has helped him become well-rounded and developed his critical thinking skills. Part of that is the Theory of Knowledge subject – it has links to every subject and has helped him make important connections.”

With greatly increased confidence, and the ability to think critically – those vital ‘soft skills’ sought by universities and employers – it seems that Axel will be well-served for his entrance into the adult world.

New horizons: Axel Bourgeois travelled with SSHL to help build a school in Kenya. Photo: SSHL

An exciting future 

As his time at SSHL draws to a close, Axel feels that he is more than prepared for what awaits.

“After I finish I’d like to try working for a year, before studying. After that, I will probably end up doing engineering at university.

“Whatever I do, I want to create good environments – not just in work, but everywhere. It’s so important that we have a society where we can get along and people have a sense of belonging. I would like to use my skills to make that happen.”

Boarding can be the decision that transforms a young life. Discover SSHL’s boarding programs, or try one of the boarding weekends at the school in February and March 2023

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Swedish government proposes longer school days

Schoolchildren aged 6-10 could have longer school days and more Swedish and maths lessons, if a new proposal by the government is approved.

Swedish government proposes longer school days

According to data from the Swedish government from spring 2022, 18,000 students, or 15 percent of students in year nine, the final year of compulsory schooling in Sweden, did not have high enough grades to move on to gymnasiet, upper secondary education for 16-19 year olds.

“Many students, most of all boys, have huge issues with reading and writing today,” Schools Minister Lotta Edholm said.

In order to improve these figures, the government wants to extend school days at the lågstadiet level, which would affect 6-10 year olds.

“Swedish schoolchildren are at school for a relatively short time, and we can see big problems regarding reading, writing, and mathematics. The foundation for much of this is laid in lågstadiet,” Edholm said.

The government proposes that teaching time be increased with an hour per school day in lågstadiet, which would mean students in the first three years of school would be at school for an extra 20 minutes each day, if this hour was split equally among each year group.

This teaching time would be dedicated to Swedish and maths, without cutting down on any other subject.

“Simply put, it’s more time in school,” Edholm said.

In the government’s budget proposal for 2023, 900 million kronor has been earmarked for this per year, starting in 2025 – the earliest date the government expects that the proposal could be approved.

At the same time, Sweden is facing a lack of teachers. According to the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), there will be a shortage of around 12,000 trained teachers and preschool teachers in the country until 2035.

Skolverket will now be tasked with analysing the proposal to see how it could be implemented in practice, Edholm explained.

“At the same time, we’re going to invest in special teachers in Swedish schools, both by increasing the number of places on teacher training courses and by increasing the number of positions.”

She also added that the government will launch an investigation in to how the administrative burden on teachers could be lessened, so more study time can be dedicated to teaching and less on paperwork.

“The number of children in the lower years is decreasing somewhat, but it’s clear that we have a large shortage of teachers at a foundational level,” Edholm said. “Part of it is getting young people interested in becoming teachers, but also getting more teachers to come back to the profession or stay in it a little bit longer.”

“We know that this aspect of the administrative burden makes a big difference there.”

The Swedish Teacher’s Union, Lärarförbundet, disagrees. Its chairman, Johanna Jaara Årstrand, said that more teaching hours for students sounds good in theory, but would not work in practice.

“The biggest issue we have today is that students don’t have trained teachers in their classes. This proposal would mean that we need 1,100 more teachers in a situation where we’re already lacking tens of thousands,” she said.

“This proposal is simply detached from reality, which in practice would mean more lessons without teachers. That doesn’t create quality or a better work environment for the few teachers we have.”

The government has previously proposed reshuffling teaching hours in schools, after an investigation carried out by Skolverket. Under this proposal, the subject elevens val (‘student’s choice’, a lesson where students can choose which subject to study independently), would be scrapped, with those hours used on subjects covering science and society. That proposal, with a suggested start date of autumn 2024, has now been sent for remiss before it can be voted on in parliament.