BESSA In-session: Pastoral care in boarding schools

With well-being and mental health a current hot topic amongst teenagers, BESSA speaks to Harry Hammond about pastoral care in boarding schools.  Hammond has been a housemaster for 12 years, teaches chemistry and is currently Senior Master at Radley College.

Pastoral care in boarding schools is of utmost importance to ensure the well-being and happiness of the students.  What does a pupil’s pastoral support team typically look like?

There will be a strong pastoral team in place, both within the boarding house and the school as a whole. The key people in the House are the Housemaster (or Housemistress) (HM) and Matron.  The Housemaster has an overall view of a pupil’s progress: pastoral, academic and co-curricular.  He is usually both a teacher and a parent-figure and this is a key leg of the triangle between parent, child and school.  The Matron will look after practical details, as well as getting to know the child and his parents very well.  In the middle of the night, she will still be available; as will the whole pastoral team, if there is an emergency.  Some schools also have a tutor system in place.  Tutors can oversee social integration and/or provide academic mentorship.  Some may look after a year group of, say, 12 students or be assigned individually to supervise one or two pupils.

There will also be a school-based team, led by the Designated Safeguard Lead (DSL). They will deal with anything that needs to be passed on from the HM, especially if there is an issue involving boys from different Houses.

The “House” system is a strong tradition in British boarding schools.  Tell us about how this system works and why it has been used in so many British schools. 

Most schools have a vertical system in the Houses:  there are between 10 to 15 pupils from each year group in the House, starting from the younger students all the way up to 18.  Sometimes schools may have a separate House for either the younger  11 to 13 year olds, or the older Sixth Formers.  The House provides a sense of belonging, and the students get very attached to their House.  Not only is it the place they eat and sleep, but it is also the “team” they compete for in all intra-school sport and activities.  The House system is a wonderful way for everyone in a boarding school community to get to know each other well.

How would you advise parents of prospective boarders to prepare their children for the experience?

Boarding schools are perfect places for a child to develop their talents, whilst learning social skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.  In my view, these things are very important:

  • The child and both his parents must be fully committed to the project.  It doesn’t work out if one or both of the parents is against the boarding option.
  • The child should look forward to doing a wide variety of things, not just academic work.  This is an excellent opportunity to learn new skills, as well as nurture natural talent.
  • The parents should trust the school.  Things may not always be easy for the child – especially when they are getting used to the new environment – but if the parents are positive and reassuring, it will work.  Communication with the pastoral team is key.

What are some examples of pastoral issues that commonly arise in boarding schools, and how are they approached or dealt with by the school?

The absolute priority is the well-being of each child.  Children can suffer from many anxieties and there is a large network to help them keep their sense of worth high.  The main issues often revolve around anti-social behavior and students being unpleasant to each other.  The experience of most schools is this tends to be confined within a particular cohort, rather than older boys picking on younger ones.  We deal with this through a mixture of having huge amounts of education, but also by setting clear sanctions.  As a result, I can say that all the pupils know targeted bullying is not acceptable.  Other issues – including alcohol, drugs and pornography – will have school policies in place and there is always close monitoring.

Any final takeaways?

When parents choose the boarding option, being comfortable with the pastoral element of the school is of utmost importance. Families with boys at Radley say we have a particularly strong sense of community.  This has definitely been fostered through Chapel, a whole school assembly which meets five times the week.  Perhaps it is also thanks to ‘cocoa’, a special time of day around 9.00pm, when the boys and Matron, or another adult, sit around in a comfy room, drinking hot chocolate, eating buns and chatting about life in general.