Pizza, Popcorn & Pastoral Care

Snow on the hills outside Merchiston Castle

As I stood waiting for the Number 10 bus to take me back into Edinburgh town centre it struck me how similar the school I had just visited was to my own place of work on the far side of two continents away. If there is one thing that seems to be ubiquitous to boarding schools worldwide, it seems to be the smell of microwave popcorn emanating from house common rooms. During my time in the UK I was able to visit four different secondary boarding schools in the United Kingdom, namely Winchester College, Harrow and Wellington College in England, and Merchiston Castle in Scotland hence my standing in the cold with a fresh wind coming off the snow tipped hills and blowing the remaining scent of popcorn rapidly away.The aim of my visit was look at the provision of pastoral care in UK boarding schools. All the institutions I had selected to visit were well known for their standards of pastoral care and their tradition of boarding provision.

That these schools have excellent boarding facilities and are well resourced is a given. While we South Africans enjoy more sunshine when compared to our Northern European counterparts, in the aspect of residential facilities they put us firmly in the shade. The key element is space. Generally speaking each individual boarder has more space, in that their room, or their share of it, was bigger, and that each boarding house had more common areas than we would typically find in a South African school. These areas included a day room, separate kitchen area, games room and often a quiet study area. There was even a gym situated in one boarding house.

The most impressive accommodation I saw was at Merchiston Castle where their new three storey VI Form boarding house boasted lounges, coffee bars, numerous spaces for activities such as table tennis and pool, kitchens on each floor and individual en-suite rooms for each student. The ground floor also included a reception area, clearly designed to make the building attractive as a conference centre in the holidays to help defray what can only have been quite considerable costs.

Coffee bar
Lounge & coffee bar in the new Merchiston Castle boarding house

One other school had private ‘Skype’ lounges in each house so that students could make contact with home comfortably and privately. While these facilities are impressive it almost goes without saying that good pastoral care is so much more than simply bricks and mortar, however elaborately and expensively arranged.

While each school that I visited is unique and has their own way of managing the provision of pastoral care in the school, by the time I visited the fourth and final school I was able to predict the essential structure and support that would be provided. This is because care in UK boarding schools is underpinned by a strong legal framework that gives definition and shape to what is offered.

Schools in the United Kingdom are inspected regularly, and in terms of pastoral care, boarding schools are measured against a criteria of framework set out in a document known as ‘Boarding Schools – National Minimum Standards’ (DfE, 2015). This is no small thing, many schools have a designated compliance officer whose job it is to ensure that the school comes out well when measured against these criteria. To get an inspection rating of ‘outstanding’ is the goal and a more than useful marketing tool. Conversely for top schools any other rating would be seen as a disaster.

‘Boarding Accommodation’ is one of these twenty minimum standards but they also include ‘Health & Wellbeing’, ‘Induction & Support’ and ‘Staffing & Supervision’ to name just a few. A few days after my Scottish sojourn, I was dining in the south of England as a guest of Bramston’s House at Winchester College.  After drinks with the Housemaster and his ‘Monday’ guests we were ushered into the house dining hall where each guest was seated at the head of a table. Latin grace was said and then we served the boys from the head of the table. Following about 30 minutes of good conversation and homely food we then returned to the Housemaster’s lounge for coffee and biscuits.

The ‘Monday’ guests I discovered are all staff members who visit the house for lunch each Monday having received an invitation on the first Monday of the school year. This invite is then a standing invite for every remaining Monday of the year during the school term. The same goes for every other day meaning that on each day of the week a different group of staff dine with the boys in the house. In turn this is true for each of the eleven houses at Winchester.

I really enjoyed this tradition. It really helps build relationships and exposes the boys to different staff members in a more informal setting each day. Each house at Winchester has its own dining room and kitchen and so the food served has ‘home cooked meal’ feel to it. The drinks and coffee also creates time and space for staff to mix in small and varied groups each day, something that is often sorely lacking in our fast paced world. It is very expensive to run eleven different dining halls, but every time Winchester has been tempted to look at alternatives they have always rejected these cheaper options. I can see why.

Tube sign
It’s quite a walk up to the school from the tube station!

Harrow has got around this by having a central dining hall but creating separate zones for each house, where staff and boys eat together. This has the advantage that a Housemaster can locate any boys in space and time that he may need to and vice versa. While it perhaps lacked the charm of Winchester’s system it was an effective compromise between cost considerations and the benefits of eating together as a house. Along with my sausage and mash I managed to learn a little about the rules of Harrow Football (you can tackle anyone in the vicinity of the ball) and in turn tell the boys a little about rugby in South Africa.

With the school spread out over the town of Harrow-on-the-Hill I was really struck how each house really is a place to come home to. Each house is well staffed with around three staff living in, and talk of increasing this to four in the years to come. The Housemaster’s home is integrated into the fabric of the house making him very present in the lives of his charges. It was clear how much Harrow valued the role of their Housemasters and tutors in the care of their boys. I left a little bit fitter from all the walking around, especially the route up to the school from the tube station. It’s not called Harrow-on-the Hill for nothing.

Wellington College is famous for placing a premium on happiness. Just look at outgoing Headmaster Dr Antony Seldon’s ‘Happy’ entrance to his final speech day  I found that their approach to their students’ welfare was extremely comprehensive and thorough. An on-line Wellness Action Plan is created for any student at risk and key staff members are given responsibility to ensure that this happens with a committee to oversee the process. At Merchiston they called this GIRFEC (Getting It Right for Every Child).

In all the schools, house staff are supported in their pastoral care efforts by a team of counsellors (an average of around two per school), chaplains and nurses, as well as designated Child Protection Officers. Clear thought had gone into the provision of pastoral care; significant resources had been allocated towards it and structures to ensure accountability were firmly in place. I think the weakness in the system is that with such strong legislation the temptation may be to confuse the provision of good care with keeping up with paper work. At one school the notice boards in each separate house displayed identical documents to all the other houses. This is simply because certain information must legally be displayed and therefore cannot be left to chance or the vagaries of individual Housemasters.

There is little doubt that articulating standards to be met in what are important areas has gone a long way into lifting standards of pastoral care across the UK, but of course legislation cannot capture on paper the essence of care and sport which is at its heart an intangible concept. While legislation can perhaps help reduce poor pastoral care, it cannot ensure excellent care, only people can do that. Good pastoral care simply can’t be legislated for.

Be happy at Wellington College

I loved seeing what schools in the UK were doing in terms of boarding provision. I was blown away by some of the facilities and centuries old traditions that enhance pastoral care. However what impressed me most, as it does here in South Africa too, were the people. People who are passionate, dedicated, and highly capable. Professional staff who go way beyond anything that legislation can impose. For me excellent care must have a relational, as opposed to a legal, basis. In all of our boarding schools, both in South Africa and the United Kingdom, it is the Housemaster or Housemistress who personifies the house system, which is in turn part of the DNA of boarding schools worldwide. These people along with the tutors, counsellors and chaplains who support them, are where the real heart of pastoral care lies.

Back at my own school, at a recent book study where some of the staff meet to discuss how to best care for students, there was common ground amongst the group as to their best moment with boys. These were invariably informal moments, often out of the class environment, such as a school trip or around take away pizza at a tutor’s home. It is often in all the gaps between, and the cracks running through, the curriculum, sports and activities, that good pastoral care happens. Any structures and support must be engineered and designed to provide time and space for such relationships to form.

In summary; good pastoral care really does come down to good relationships. While reading Bear Grylls’ autobiography ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’, I was struck by what he said about the role of the Housemaster at one of Britain’s top boarding schools, “…so much of people’s experience at Eton rests on whether they had a housemaster who rocked or bombed. I got lucky”

Bear goes on to explain how his Housemaster, Mr Quibell, hated pizza with a passion, so as a joke Bear and his peers would call the local pizza store and arrange an order of thirty or more pizzas to be delivered to their Housemaster’s door. The students would then hide in order to witness the resulting reaction of their teacher and the consequent exchange with the delivery man. Despite the practical jokes Mr Quibell was clearly loved and respected. Bear writes, “…he was fair and he cared; and as a teenager those two qualities really matter to one’s self esteem.”

Conversely another notable celebrity, John Cleese, who attended a boarding school in the west of England describes his Housemaster as ‘one of only two staff members that he really didn’t like. In his book ‘So Anyway,’ he calls him a ‘joyless dwarf’. No amount of legislation can take care of a problem like that.

One comment

  1. I so enjoyed reading this Tim. It really opens one’s eyes to what is available out there in the world. I have a friend with a son at Harrow( he was at prep school with Oli) and I always hear about the great food , accommodation etc but to read your description really brought it to life. Please keep writing!! Regards Hilary


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