How does boarding promote wellbeing?
– Jo Duncan, Head of The Royal High School Bath
How does boarding promote wellbeing and help children and young people thrive? If ‘wellbeing’ is defined as being physically and mentally healthy and able to cope with life’s challenges in a positive and constructive manner, then a good boarding school experience will support this in a wide variety of ways.
First, excellent pastoral care is provided by experienced boarding house staff and medical teams specifically trained in working with children and young people. The routine and structure of a well-run boarding house gives a genuine sense of security and allows pupils to feel safe and protected. This does not mean that life is strictly regimented like a military camp, but in this organised environment they have the opportunity to study effectively while also fully enjoying their free time. Rules and regulations, which should be minimal, play an important part in supporting pupils’ wellbeing and development, particularly throughout the crucial teenage stage. Bedtime routines are clear and consistent, enabling pupils to get all-important sleep, and use and misuse of electronic devices (which we are all grappling with) is actively managed. Good, nutritious food supports physical development and the fantastic facilities available at many boarding schools mean that sport and fitness is high on the agenda for many pupils. Other initiatives, such as themed weeks focusing on aspects of wellbeing, mindfulness or the presence of animals (at RHS we have a much-loved wellbeing dog) promote this important aspect.
Being away from home during term time can be difficult for some new pupils at first. But all boarding schools have strategies in place to deal with early homesickness and most pupils settle in very quickly. In my own school, staff often comment on how new pupils change after a very short period of time. At a recent boarders’ dinner, we marvelled at the assured self-confidence displayed by one young boarder who was adamant at first that she would not be with us longer than a week!
Living in a community
The emphasis on living in a community means boarding is a unique experience and one that should be embraced positively. We are social beings and there is great joy in being part of a group. The friendships that are made at boarding school often last a lifetime. This means pupils have a deeper, richer school life but also in many cases they have support they can rely on throughout their lives, whatever the future may hold. Of course, along with the benefits of living in a community come the minor irritations and sometimes bigger challenges of sharing one’s living space with others, but these are also experiences which help to develop tolerance, patience and understanding when managed skilfully by staff.
Academic achievement is important but schools should be about more than preparation for examinations. We are in the privileged position of developing the minds and characters of young people who will face a world that is radically different to the one in which their parents were raised. They will enter a competitive, global, technology-driven workplace, where it is likely they will have a myriad of jobs or multiple careers, and they will be living and working much longer than any generation before them. Paradoxically, it is by cultivating the values and qualities that are unchanging that we will enable them to be successful in this fast-paced, changing world. What are these qualities? I believe they are the ability to form meaningful relationships with others; to display good judgement; to demonstrate courage and integrity; to be emotionally resilient when things are tough and to have a deep sense of respect for themselves and for others. Boarding provides the ideal setting to develop these characteristics.
One of the great luxuries of boarding school is the availability of time. While they are busy places which much going on, there is a sense that the school day is not squeezed into the hours of 8.30am to 4.00pm with a mass exodus when the final bell sounds. Tutorials, sport, drama, music, art and weekend activities take place seven days a week and often well into the evening. Removing the pressure of time provides a range of opportunities for supporting wellbeing further.
Finally, where do parents fit into this picture? They have an important part to play in choosing the right school for their child and supporting the school as it works to create an environment where pupils can flourish. Boarding should offer the best of school allowing parents to offer the best of home and when school and parents are in partnership we can be confident that the wellbeing of our children is assured.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Jo Duncan started her teaching career with a degree in English Literature and Theology at the University of St Andrews. During her time as a student, she travelled to Hungary and Romania to teach English and decided to commit to a career in teaching. She has previously taught at Benenden School in Kent, where she was head of religious studies and resident deputy housemistress. She became Head of The Royal High School Bath in 2015.