Hello from Oxfordshire!
Here we have the final article in our three-part mini series, Boarding School at Home. In this feature, we explore how British boarding schools have transferred their unique school spirits to a virtual world — how have they managed to stay connected as a community when pupils and teachers are spread out across the world? And how have they adjusted their pastoral care to support pupils through the complex demands of lockdown and online school? We’ve spoken to pupils, teachers, and education experts across the country to find out. In case you missed them, the previous two articles in the series — which look at British boarding schools’ approaches to online teaching and extracurriculars — can be found here and here.
Finally, we are always keen to hear what our own community of pupils and parents think, so if anything you read sparks a response, please do drop us a line with your thoughts on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rather civilised: Ferdinand Steinbeis and headmaster Tom Lawson enjoying tea together (well, espresso in Tom's case, actually!)
Care across borders
For their pupils, British boarding schools act as a home away from home; they are experts at providing emotional and psychological support to hundreds of young people as they navigate the complexities of their teenage years and the outside world. But lockdown sent the majority of these pupils back to their real homes, meaning teachers used to checking in with pupils on a daily basis were now only able to get a glimpse of their lives through a screen. But (as we wrote about in a previous article), while pupils being at home meant boarding schools decided to take a step back in their provision of evening and weekend activities, to give pupils space to be with their families, the challenges of lockdown and online school only increased the need for ever-present pastoral care. So how, with pupils behind different screens in different countries, did British boarding schools extend their care across borders?
Lots to discuss about Uppingham's pastoral care: Headmaster Dr Richard Maloney talks to Ferdinand Steinbeis
Stephen Curran, an independent education consultant, says the best responses were those that put in place formal structures to handle the challenge. Rather than leaving it to teachers to handle between themselves, he says, headteachers should have appointed specific members of staff to monitor and support pupils’ mental wellbeing. “Children won’t approach teachers with problems during a Zoom lesson, they just won’t do it… This checking in should be regularly set up,” Curran says.
The schools we spoke to clearly had the same idea, timetabling in tutor sessions and one-on-ones for each pupil. But their regularity differed from school to school.
Emily, an IB pupil at Haileybury in Hertfordshire, told us that as well as a tutor meeting once or twice a week, where they were encouraged to talk about how they felt and whether they’d spent enough time outside, she also had to attend a call every morning with her house mistress. At St Clare’s in Oxford, there were mandated group tutor meetings each week as well as one-on-ones, while Wells Cathedral School in Somerset made sure tutor sessions were timetabled so that international students in different time zones could attend. As well as organising regular conversations between pupils and the pastoral care team, Charterhouse in Surrey took a more data-led approach. “Each month we get a wellbeing survey,” explained Katerina, an IB pupil there. “If you’re below a certain number they come and talk to you about how you’re doing.”
Ferdinand and Levi talk about homeschooling and support
However, most of the schools we spoke to emphasised that while setting aside specific hours for pastoral care is helpful, the most effective way to spot and address problems is by paying close attention to any changes in pupils’ behaviour — and experts agree.
“There are some big questions around mental health and anxiety,” says Sandra Leaton Gray, associate professor of education at University College London. “I think it comes down to knowing the pupils really well.”
Stephen Holroyd, deputy head of curriculum at Malvern College in Worcestershire, says that classic signs of a pupil struggling to cope include late homework submissions, not asking questions and a lack of engagement, as well as keeping cameras off in lessons. “There were a number of individual pupils we knew would find being on their own very difficult,” Mr Holroyd says. “You pick up the signs of pupils not coping, you can just pick up all these little nuances.”
However, Mr Holroyd adds, schools have to be sensitive around those who keep their cameras off in lessons, as some pupils — particularly teenagers — find it uncomfortable being on camera the whole time.
Lara-Marie talks to Ferdinand about Bryanston's pastoral care during lockdown
While in normal times, boarding schools act in loco parentis, over lockdown, parents played a crucial role in helping schools support their pupils’ wellbeing. At Charterhouse, for example, Katerina’s mother, Ingrid, was in regular communication with the school via email. “Even if Katerina misses a deadline to give an essay, we are informed,” Ingrid says. “We get a regular once a week report from the housemistress, so we know approximately how the atmosphere is between the girls, the mood.”
For Matthew Lim, head of digital education at Cheltenham Ladies College in Gloucestershire, creating a strong pastoral environment is also about readjusting academic expectations. “Sitting in front of a screen for six hours a day and then having to do digital homework is not a way to be a young person, so it’s about having the humanity to understand that, and readjusting expectations to be realistic during this period,” he explains.
In severe examples, some schools were able to intervene more than others. King William’s College on the Isle of Man made use of its small island location to pay socially distanced garden visits to pupils that were particularly struggling. “For those individuals it could be really claustrophobic in the family setting… For them we did quite a lot of intervention,” says Joss Buchanan, headmaster at King William’s. “We were getting to the stage where a member of the pastoral team would actually go and visit and have a socially distanced conversation in the garden to try and get that connection again.”
Ferdinand Steinbeis testing the equipment
Individual British boarding schools share many characteristics — Hogwarts-esque buildings and grounds, high quality teaching, and state of the art extracurricular facilities. But their atmospheres, the ethos that surrounds them, are unique, and often intangible. In an online world, where school is stripped down to Zoom timetables and homework, keeping a communal spirit alive — and beaming it into pupils’ homes — is an immense challenge. But it is one that British boarding schools have clearly taken very seriously, and to the praise of their students.
“It definitely still feels like a school community, and you can really see they really tried to do that,” Emily told us. Every Thursday, Haileybury would hold house nights for different boarding houses; house groups would have virtual lunches together; and there was a school-wide cabaret, as well as quizzes and house dinners.
At Wells, a school where pupils are deeply embedded in the local community, it was important that these local lines of communication were kept open. “I think as a school we’ve made a conscious effort not to forget our place in the wider community,” says Natalie Perry, deputy head of academics. Wells students started a special newsletter over lockdown, still sent Christmas cards to local care homes, live streamed concerts to the Wells town community, and took part in local virtual bookshares.
Ferdinand Steinbeis talking to Justus about Bede's School
Having boarding house parents who do not teach, but are solely responsible for supporting the boarding community, enabled some schools to go the extra mile. At Haileybury, house parents sent handwritten notes and cards through the post; until schools reopened recently, there were plans to send every pupil a book that the whole school would read together. “The structuring of our Connected School, and the way it was put together would not have worked without the house mistresses and masters selling it to the pupils, explaining it and bringing them together,” says Mr Holroyd. “The house parents were a way of navigating this treasure trove of activities and learning, that’s what kept it going.”
And what about pupils’ actual parents? Many schools were also keen to make sure that they also maintained connections with the school and each other. “There were a lot of house nights where you could come with your parents and have drinks online, and there’s one parents’ house night where the parents just have drinks online together,” explains Emily.
But there are limits to how effective these initiatives can be. For Ingrid, Katerina’s mother, socialising via Zoom was more challenging, as Katerina only joined the school a year ago so Ingrid had not met the other parents before. “It’s not possible to connect parents together, it's a real pity as we would like to get to know other parents,” she says. “But if you start on Zoom it’s difficult.”
And of course, despite schools' many heroic efforts to keep pupils engaged and connected to the school community, nothing is quite like being there in person. “It’s not really possible to bring the whole Charterhouse experience to my own home,” admits Katerina. “We have one house competition every week, and house meetings and tutorials keep us on track with what they would do if we were in school… But what I miss the most is just walking around school hanging out with friends.”