Hello from Oxford!
This is the second article of three from our mini-series Boarding School At Home. This article focuses on the extracurricular side of online school — what’s on offer, how it’s done, and what pupils think of it. In case you missed it, you can find the first article in the series, on online teaching, here. Check back soon for the final article, a deep dive into how school’s have kept their culture and ethos alive in an online world.
Learning the fun way about Haileybury from Martin Collier, Headmaster of Haileybury School
A screen full of activities
If teaching is hard to do through a screen, extracurriculars provide a whole other challenge. How do you train a hockey team when each player is in a different home, often different countries? How do you coordinate a choir or a theatre performance, when you can’t rehearse in person? And more importantly, how do you keep children engaged and interested in extracurriculars, when they’re sick of staring at screens already?
At von Bülow, we’ve been fascinated by this challenge since the UK went into lockdown a year ago. Alongside the quality of teaching, a key selling point of British boarding schools is their extracurricular provision — the incredible campuses and grounds, and the state of the art facilities within them. So when pupils don’t have physical access to these, what do schools do?
Well, quite a lot, it turns out. Pupils we’ve spoken to at various different schools have listed a whole range of activities they’ve been able to take part in, from cooking and yoga, to beekeeping and stargazing. Some of these require more inventive thinking than others — while it’s fairly easy to move a psychology society discussion to Zoom or Microsoft Teams, extracurricular activities that focus on developing practical rather than knowledge-based skills can be more difficult to adapt to an online world.
Ferdinand having tea and cake with the lovely Lisa Kerr, Headmistress of Gordonstoun in Scotland
To meet this challenge, just as schools learnt to blend independent learning with live teaching, so too did they find that each extracurricular activity required a different approach, mixing live teaching with pupils’ independent activities and feedback.
For example, at Malvern College in Worcestershire, pupils in the jazz band recorded their individual parts themselves and the in-house tech team then stitched the performances together to create an ensemble piece. For the thespians, there was the option to get dressed up with stage-effect lighting in their homes, where they videoed themselves performing musical theatre songs for a “Night at the Musicals” show on the school’s TV channel. At Haileybury School in Hertfordshire, the beekeeper on site at school led “From the Hive” broadcasts, where he’d livestream himself attending to the bees, explaining what he was doing and why. Emily, an IB pupil at Haileybury, told us how the design and technology department sent out building kits for pupils to use, while Justus, a pupil at Bede’s School in Sussex, says he was sent a box of curry ingredients, for an online cook-a-long with a teacher.
Chatting with John Browne, headmaster of Stonyhurst College
“We had wellbeing, we had activities we could do, sports, creative things, we could still do absolutely everything,” Emily adds. “Psychology society, amnesty society, chess club, cooking, a blog about cooking, there was loads.”
“If you have a strong framework in place for extracurricular already, it’s relatively straightforward to move those things online,” says Stephen Campbell, deputy headmaster at Haileybury and the mastermind behind its “Connected School”. One teacher at Haileybury even held live stargazing sessions, using a device attached to his telescope that streamed what he could see to pupils’ laptops or phones.
Naturally, it took a bit of time for schools to work out what worked well, and what didn’t. Joss Buchanan, headmaster at King William’s College on the Isle of Man, says he initially had reservations about what virtual sporting activities the school could provide. “We started off doing none, we thought it just didn’t work, but over time we began to introduce it and began to build it up,” he says. “We started with challenges — film yourself doing this, run 10k — and that worked, but there is a limit to how far you can go.”
That limit is certainly tested when it comes to team sports — an almost impossible gap to fill. But, as Stephen Holroyd, deputy head of curriculum at Malvern College says, it’s about thinking outside the box: if this is the subject, how can we do something related to it via a digital medium?
Geeking out with Stephen Campbell the Deputy Headmaster of Haileybury and mastermind of "Connected School", the school's homeschooling platform
At Malvern College, matches were replaced with one-on-one coaching or training sessions; the climbing group practiced rigging and ropework on their banisters and trees in the garden; the CCF officers set challenges for pupils to build camps in the back garden; the biking society were taught how to strip and clean gears via Zoom; other sports teams attended cook-a-longs on athletic nutrition; and the kayaking society kept fit with core strength sessions.
“We’re assuming most people don’t have white water in their back garden, but we worked on core strength skills, so that they’re ready to go when they come back,” says Mr Holroyd. The school even had Toby Flood, the England rugby player, give a talk and Q&A session via Zoom.
The point of these amazing extracurricular offerings isn’t just to show off what these schools can do, however. Instead, in a year of back-to-back Zooms, teachers recognise that it’s more important than ever to draw pupils out of the classroom — or in this case, their bedrooms.
“Co-curriculum is really about transferable skills, so yes, it keeps people fit, but we’re interested in people being active in their lives because it has immense physical and mental wellbeing benefits,” says Holroyd.
Learning the musical way - a tea drinking session with Alastair Thige, headmaster of Wells Cathedral School
And for IB students, extracurricular activities are ingrained in the qualification — via its Creativity, Activity, and Service requirements — which has added an incentive for pupils to remain engaged in life outside the classroom. At St Clare’s in Oxford, one pupil at home in India volunteered with a local NGO to feed hungry street dogs, while another uploaded vegan baking recipes and how-tos onto her YouTube channels. “The students take responsibility for their own programme, it’s about “I’m living in Italy, I’m living in Saudi Arabia, this is what I’m doing in my community,” says Kevin Hennessy, head of activities at St Clare’s.
But while what schools are offering is undoubtedly impressive, sometimes there are mixed reactions from students. And we found that the offering isn’t consistent across the board. Katerina, a pupil at Charterhouse in Surrey, for example, told us that while there were house competitions on the weekend, where pupils filmed themselves learning choreographed dances, she was missing out on her usual choir practice — something we thought could easily be organised over Zoom.
Other pupils simply don’t want to spend any longer than necessary in front of their screens. “We did cooking once and that was really good, but sometimes after I’ve sat all day in front of the screen, then two more hours of activities would just not make any sense in my eyes,” says Justus. “I would not like to spend any more time in front of a screen.”
Learning about Frensham Heights from the lovely headmaster Rick Clarke
A home-school balance
In a normal world, boarding schools are responsible for pupils’ activities and entertainment every evening, and most weekends. But over lockdown, schools we spoke to have been conscious of the fact that pupils are now at home with their families, and they have clearly decided that school activities no longer take priority in these hours.
“We were anxious to keep the connections but not to impose a structure on them and their families; we were trying to avoid doing things just for the sake of doing things, or for the sake of justifying the fees,” explains Mr Buchanan.
At Malvern College, this also meant moving the usual schedule for extracurricular activities to the early evening, so as not to intrude on family dinners. And, while pupils would normally have a tutor checking in on their extracurricular progress and engagement, Mr Holroyd says they consciously took a step back over lockdown — they didn’t want to force a pupil to run five kilometres if there was the option of going on a bike ride with their family instead, for example. “We did not intervene in that way, we did not say, ‘Why are you not doing that, or why are you not doing more,’ because we were aware of everyone's individual needs,” Mr Holroyd adds.
Always a delight to learn from - Eve Jardine-Young, headmistress fof girls school Cheltenham Ladies College in her element
It’s a stance that pupils have appreciated. “When I’m at home I’d just rather spend my time with my family and friends than spend any more time online,” Emily told us.
But it’s a tricky balance to strike — at the same time, boarding schools need to have enough on offer for those that want to take it up, or who expect the same provision of activities as there would be in a normal routine.
“We wanted to give pupils the space to go off with their families, and not feel like they had to do all these activities, but they were there if they wanted to,” says Mr Campbell.
At St Clare’s, online activities are still on offer between 4pm and 9pm every day — including photography club, the human rights action group, and chess club — but there is a lot more flexibility to the CAS requirements. “This lockdown we’ve focused a lot more on our students not being on a screen,” says Mr Hennessy. “Some of them have six hours of lessons a day so we’ve been very mindful of giving them that scope to do their CAS experiences offline, something like baking with family on the weekends, for example.”
The family presence has also proven to be an interesting silver lining for schools keen to engage with parents. While previously many parents didn’t have much insight into the diverse and engaging extracurricular programmes their children take up, they have suddenly been able to watch it play out in front of them, and even take part in some activities. For example, at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset, the school live streamed concerts from pupils’ living rooms, with parents and siblings welcome to join in. Others have encouraged families to get involved in cook-a-longs and running targets.
With pupils now back in residence at British boarding schools, these months of lockdown have provided parents with a true insight into their children’s schools and their lives within them — a window parents might not ever get to peek through again!