The Headmaster of Windlesham House School, Ben Evans, writes about the culture and flexibility of boarding
Community and spirit are the life blood of boarding schools today. The very culture of a boarding house dictates how adults and children behave and interact, how the whole community treats one another, the respect and kindness shown and, ultimately, will determine the happiness and overall wellbeing of the children. Boarding in today’s modern world is really all about passion, vibrancy, enthusiasm and the strong level of happiness and enjoyment that every child should feel.
A boarding school with spirit is one within which children and staff work together collaboratively, with great fun and energy, and one where positive things happen. It is a purposeful and busy community, full of opportunity and engagement where children flourish, develop new skills, learn about themselves and others, and above all, have fun in the process. Boarding schools like mine are also keen to ensure that they provide a balance of both structured and unstructured time to ensure that children are able to relax and mix socially, but can also use their time with purpose and accomplishment.
Flexibility of boarding
The close-knit community that will grow from the correct boarding spirit is one where everyone cares for each other, and protects each other while growing and developing together. A community that enjoys the good times, but also has the inner strength to cope when things are not going so well, learns from these occasions and gains much from them too. There will be children for whom a boarding spirit is second nature, and this will quickly develop within them. However, there will always be others who find communal living far more difficult and will struggle with either the busy nature of a boarding house or with the constant giving, taking and tolerance which is always required.
Boarding in the 21st century has to develop and innovate to survive, and successful schools will recognise this and will be constantly reflecting on their provision. Flexi-boarding is becoming more popular today as an alternative option to full boarding. This gives children the opportunity to experience the culture of the boarding house part-time or on selected days. Many children at Windlesham House board flexibly, some board during the weekdays and go home to their families at weekends, while some board on selected days each week. Gone are the days when schools can dictate to parents the rules of boarding, instead we must work with our families to provide a flexible boarding model that will work for them. One size never fits all and the changing nature of family priorities means that some are looking for something slightly different from their boarding experience.
A home away from home
Boarding councils, dorm meetings, food councils and other pupil-led committees are all great ways of ensuring that everyone has a voice or that there are conduits for children’s feelings, ideas and aspirations. Most importantly, these need to be advertised, fully inclusive and with all aspects fed back to the children. A demonstrable difference needs to be made so that children can see that their ideas are valued and are being put into practice. This in turn will lead to more respectful and vibrant communities within which everyone understands the responsibility they have, to make the boarding house fun, friendly and above all, a pleasant place to live.
Boarding houses must be a home away from home as much as possible regardless of whether a child is a full-time or flexi-boarder. An obvious starting point is to ensure they are comfortable, suitably furnished and decorated to cater to different age groups and also have a good balance of recreational areas so that everyone can find somewhere to relax, be with their friends or escape from the hustle and bustle of busy school life. However, sitting quietly beyond all of this there must be a warm, nurturing atmosphere and environment. Children should instantly feel at home and comfortable in their surroundings. It will always be part of school life, but the personality of each boarding house is largely determined by the adults who also live and work there. This is really what makes the biggest difference in terms of culture and day to day atmosphere.
Enrichment and happiness
The wellbeing and mental health of children will continue to be a priority for boarding provision, but how we tackle this issue, along with diversity and inclusion, will be the differentiator. Specialist staffing and resources within the boarding houses will become the norm rather than the exception and ensuring that children have dedicated time to reflect on their school days and the opportunities to discuss their concerns, worries and aspirations regularly is essential.
Parents expect more from boarding schools today. They want and quite reasonably expect their children to have additional opportunities and experiences beyond the normal school curriculum and for these to be personally enriching and beneficial for their future success and happiness. As schools we must be looking carefully at what we provide our boarders in terms of enrichment and how we measure the outcomes and benefits. Regardless of the need to constantly evolve and innovate, a few elements remain constant; children should feel cared for, they should feel happy, secure and able to flourish within a warm and homely boarding environment.