A Warm Environment: Elements of good pastoral care in school

Holistic pastoral care in schools can foster an environment for motivation, a sense of wellbeing, resilience in the face of setback and, ultimately, achievement. This is especially true in boarding schools. With this in mind I visited Oundle School, one of the UK’s biggest boarding schools, to see how they do it.

Governed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers since 1556, Oundle has around 1100 students with well over 850 of them in residence. With 14 boarding houses (eight boys, five girls and one mixed junior house) and various academic departments spread throughout the Northamptonshire village, it feels more like a small university than a school.

Talk of the town

That atmosphere is, to a certain extent, extended to the way the students are treated. Driving into the town I saw pupils queuing for sticky buns over break at the local café. They can order from the Italian pizza place at the weekend and scholars over 18 are also allowed to visit the pub on Friday and Saturday nights. Getting between lessons involves considerable movement. Lots of the staff were peddling around on bicycles to ensure they got to class on time and sweat free.

I wasn’t so lucky. Having parked my car I met my guide who raced me around the town in an effort to see everything (we didn’t) in the allotted 75 mins. He did though succeed in warming me up and depositing me out of breath into the furnace that is any English building with a central heating system.

There followed lunch at one of the boys’ boarding house with Ann Meisner, Deputy Head Pastoral, and her Tutor Group. Over an excellent lunch of chicken korma and fresh warm naan bread I discovered a little more about Oundle’s pastoral approach. To begin with, each house has their own dining room (and often their own kitchen). For most schools this is prohibitively expensive, but it’s a game changer.  To have an in-house dining room facilitates excellent pastoral care. Every Monday and Friday all teachers at Oundle have lunch with their (vertical) tutor group. It is a chance to share a meal together and check in to see how everyone is doing.

As the meal continued (a homemade sponge pudding with caramel sauce) it quickly became apparent that Oundle has put in place the foundations for strong pastoral care.

Four elements of good pastoral care

  1. Small units of care – At Oundle an unwieldy 860 or so boarders become a more manageable group of around 65 (smaller in the junior boarding house) once allocated to one of 14 houses. From here, as in most schools, the house is further divided into Tutor Groups of between 8-12 pupils. This provides oversight for studnts, and responsibility for each individual teacher, in terms of care. Other schools use grade groups, with year heads and horizontal tutor groups.
  2. Time for relational exchange – The staff at Oundle work as hard as any other that I have come across, perhaps harder. (See below) but time is carved out to ensure relationships and wellbeing are attended to. Schools must put time aside for small groups to meet. At Oundle this is often over lunch which gives the interaction meaning and context. It also creates time by overlapping two very important parts of school life. Not every school can manage this and there are alternatives. However, no school should say, ‘we can’t afford the time for pastoral care’, rather ‘we can’t afford not to provide pastoral care’.
  3. Proactivity – Oundle have their Learning for Life programme, Wellington the Happiness Curriculum, the UK generally has Personal and Social Health Education and South Africa has Life Orientation. These programmes cover issues related to mental health and well-being. At Oundle, pupils are introduced to the Clayton Rooms (see point 4) on arrival so that they know where to go if they need support. In addition, more and more schools, Oundle included, are using digital programmes to track their student’s mental health.
  4. Links to good support services – The Clayton Rooms at Oundle contain a team of four counsellors and a dog. The school also has a health centre and a four strong Chaplaincy team. In all schools it is vital that there are good channels to professional support that students can follow themselves, or to which school staff can refer them to.

Long lunches

The lunch break at Oundle is close to one and half hours long. This creates a chance for the staff to meet in the Housemasters study after the meal for a hot cup of coffee and a catch up. A little later as the teachers headed back to class, I drained my cup and, visit over, stepped back into the cold to return to my car.

The stroll gave me a chance not only to walk off my lunch but to reflect on my visit and see again some of Oundle’s excellent facilities, (the Design, Engineering and Technology lab is the size of a small sports centre). The buildings are impressive but not as important as the structures put in place to ensure every student has someone to turn to. Despite the size of the school, the architecture is such that each pupil can find their niche.

It had been a warm visit and not just because of the central hearing.


Working 24/7

Monday and Friday are the long teaching days (8:30-17:00) that include a Tutor Group lunch in the middle. Tuesday and Thursday are half academic days with sport for everyone in the afternoon. This is followed by ‘Voluntary’s’ at 17:15 where all staff are available for extra lessons should it be required.

Wednesday is academic till lunch with the rest of the day available for clubs and societies. Saturday consists of a full morning of classes and a full afternoon of sports for all (usually matches). This all goes with the standard evening and Sunday duties that go with staffing a boarding school.

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