Caring about, not just caring for – the role of boarding staff in our schools
– Alex Thomson, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Training, Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA)
‘The boarders receive outstanding levels of support from a wide range of staff within the school…’
‘The pastoral care is exceptional…’
‘Parents provided overwhelmingly positive feedback.’
‘This outstanding boarding community is a result of the (staff) fulfilling their vision to provide a safe, structured, nurturing environment.’
‘Staff work collaboratively and are dedicated to delivering a high standard of care to the children…’
Whether these comments are from parents or found in school inspection reports, it is clear that successful boarding schools are very much the result of a dedicated and capable boarding and pastoral staff team. This does not come about by chance however – schools need to spend much time, effort and money to recruit, train and retain the very best staff.
Recruiting the best
Schools are always keen to recruit new staff with not just the right qualifications and experience but also applicants with the right attitude and outlook. In essence, they are looking for someone who wants to make a positive impact on young people and help them thrive in their ‘second home’. Recruitment and selection of the right new staff requires schools to produce not only explicit job descriptions but also job specifications which identify the aptitudes and attitudes they see as key to creating a successful boarding team.
This is not as simple as it sounds. Boarding schools are not like day schools or indeed any other form of child-focused care. Someone who has worked in social care, youth services or a day school may not understand the demands associated with the 24/7 nature of a boarding environment or the nature of the relationships which are essential for pupils to grow and develop. Indeed, there is a truism in boarding schools that 80% of learning occurs outside of the classroom setting. In addition, a boarding school is a little like a goldfish bowl where the whole community of pupils and adults live in close proximity and interact in so many ways that there can be little ‘downtime’.
Not everyone is prepared for or can adapt to such an intense working environment, so schools must be very clear about the nature of a boarding role both before and at interview so that only right-minded people apply for such posts.
Caring about and for boarding pupils means all staff must keep up to date in terms of their professional knowledge and skills. From safeguarding to pastoral care, boarding staff can expect to constantly develop how they support pupils. Schools will have a wide-ranging and diverse continual professional development programme for all their staff. For example, teaching staff will need regular curricular and examination updating, pastoral and boarding staff may need training in the latest PSHE theme such as e-safety or emotional health, and support staff need to understand the latest in data protection or information sharing.
Of course all staff need regular updates on safeguarding matters; most recently this has included the duties associated with the Government’s Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance which covers a wide range of topics including cyberbullying, ‘sexting’, FGM and sexual exploitation. Schools will update related policies and procedures on a regular basis and often run workshops for key staff to ensure that best practice is cascaded down and implemented across the campus. New staff induction will certainly include safeguarding as well as health and safety.
In the boarding context, an increasing number of schools are offering key staff accredited training such as the courses offered by the BSA. New boarding and pastoral staff may complete the online induction module. Junior staff may be on the university Certificate course – in 2016 more than 310 staff undertook this demanding course alongside their everyday teaching/boarding duties. Senior staff may be on the Diploma course which equips them for their boarding leadership role. School nurses and matrons may attend BSA day workshops on topics as wide-ranging as mental health or administering medicines. They may also attend the BSA annual conferences where experts share the latest thinking on a wide range of subjects.
Of equal importance for schools is the retention of staff. All the time and effort spent in recruiting and training must not be wasted by staff leaving too soon. Building the boarding or pastoral team, indeed any team in our schools, is critical and headteachers and heads of boarding will be keen to sure that the right staff stay and continue to add value in caring for the day pupils and boarders. So they will consider how to grow talent within the boarding team, for example, taking a house tutor and preparing them to become the resident assistant housemaster, housemistress or houseparent, or supporting the assistants so that they become the next generation of houseparents.
So, next time you visit a boarding school make sure you ask about the background and interests of key staff and what programme of professional development is in place for boarding staff so that you can find out how this is helping to make the boarding experience so much more fulfilling for pupils.
Alex taught geography and mathematics before joining the Education and Training branch of the Army. His service included roles as Director of Adult Education in Northern Ireland, Chief Examinations Officer for the Army’s Junior Officer Education and Training, and Senior Education Adviser to the Officer Selection Board. Before becoming BSA’s Director of Training in September 2008, he was the Children’s Services Director for British Forces in Germany. He is passionate about promoting improvement and development in education in general and specifically in the boarding sector. He was made OBE in the 2009 New Year’s Honours List for his support to Service Children and their families in Germany. As Director of Training at BSA he has expanded the day seminar programme and the BSA Professional Certificate course, developed a new Diploma course for senior boarding staff, written two online induction modules for new staff, and most recently created a new BSA Certificate course for staff working with international boarders to meet the many and diverse needs of our boarding schools.